Where Were The Sex Workers At The International AIDs Conference?

The conference had not been held in the USA for two decades because HIV+ travelers were banned from entering. This miserable situation was alleviated in 2009. Holding AIDS 2012 in DC was the AIDS establishment’s way of giving slow-to-learn America one big pat on the head. Thanks, I guess.

But there’s still a travel ban for foreign sex workers. And drug users. Who regard this conference as a second, albeit temporary, home or community. These travel bans could have been lifted for the conference. Other countries have been known to do just that. It’s called …hosting a conference.

During an election year, was Obama likely to support a rules-bending controversy? Just to welcome a floating community of sex workers and druggies who can’t even vote for him? No, I guess not. The organizers of AIDS 2012 should have taken our election cycle into consideration, maybe.

Six hundred sex workers went instead to the rather mind-blowing alternative-yet-official AIDS 2012 Hub in Calcutta. Billboards welcomed the sex workers at Kolkata airport and the central train station.

The inauguration of the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival “took forever,” one organizer told me, because “all these West Bengal politicians,” diligently courting the sex worker vote, kept arriving for the ceremony. In Sonagaatchi, one of the largest red-light districts on the planet, the ladies are now a formidable voting bloc.

When it comes to democracy? We might have some catching up to do. But first, I want you to meet Pon Ponmaru, one of the stand-out performers at every conference. The policy wonks definitely look forward to seeing her show! She’s a member of SWASH (Sexual Work and Sexual Health) in Japan.

Picture via Matthias Lehmann

Marching to the Whitehouse, sex workers and sympathizers carrying red umbrellas to protest that travel ban made the news on Tuesday. Red umbrellas were everywhere this week! In the conference center. On the street. In DC and Kolkata.

Picture via IAS

Our international symbol made its debut in 2001, at the 49th Venice Biennale, and is now present at every AIDS conference. The red umbrella, you see, is one thing we can all agree on. Every two years, we put aside our differences and our animosities to Speak With One Voice at the AIDS conference. It’s not easy, but it’s weirdly satisfying.

What could sex workers possibly disagree about? Everything from illicit drugs to snitching to anonymity to gun rights. Chardonnay versus heroin. Streetwalking. Facebook settings! Paganism. The police. Unions. Funding. Feminism. When a mass shooting occurred just days before the conference, I decided not to tweet about guns for the sake of what you might call party unity. In some parts of this country, sex workers cherish the right to carry a weapon. Where I live? Not so much.

Picture via Matt Lehmann

With hookers, um, sex workers, the narcissism of small differences is alive! The red umbrella signifies a bigger, better, GLOBAL narcissism , and — most important — looks great, whether you wear a t-shirt or a sari.


You can reach this post’s author, Tracy Quan, on Twitter or at TQ@tracyquan.net

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    • Charles Peck

      Tracy Quan demonstrates her usual panache in her report on the 2012 aids conference.

    • Meena Saraswathi Seshu

      Aw! tracy, some more of that analysis on Global solidarity is needed. The piece ended too abruptly for me. Another paragraph on why we need and recognize this solidarity is critical in your piece.

    • Qwertyuiop

      Sex workers don’t need a union; they need rehab and career training to find safer work before they become too old to make a living selling their bodies.

    • ClydeS

      SEVEN continents? Are those scientific researchers in Antarctica branching out? Brings a whole new meaning to doing it “penguin-style”!

    • willis

      Were there sex workers at the International Aids Conference? Not that I could see, but the place was crawling with whores.

    • BigSoph

      There is a red light district in the Antarctic?

      Sex Worker… be honest, call ‘em as they are: prostitute, hooker, whore, call-girl, “high priced escort”

    • Tracy Quan

      Seven continents! Busted! I’m going to blame the planets for that blooper:

    • David Pittelli

      I am sure that most prostitutes and IV drug abusers are interested in the topic of AIDS and AIDS prevention. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that a global body of medical researchers, doctors and public health workers will suffer from a lack of prostitutes and drug addicts, who are present in all of their own countries. What new information, or even perspective, would the prostitutes provide the scientists?