Picture via P. J. Starr

This year’s International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012), held in Washington, DC, wrapped on Friday with a keynote address from Bill Clinton. Bill’s relationship with the biennial conference began six years ago in Toronto. I was there, and I remember it well!

I am, in fact, wearing the t-shirt from the Toronto conference as I write this. The super-hot bilingual Sex Worker tee, produced by the Montreal girls. (I’m sorry, but no matter how blasé or well-traveled you are, “travailleuses du sexe” has more caché than “sex workers.” It just does. And it helps when your t-shirt comes with a matching banner.

Picture via John Maclennan

Back to AIDS 2006. We (sex workers from seven continents) were dispersed throughout the Toronto Convention Center on Front Street everywhere. Some were featured on panels, others were staffing the Sex Workers Networking Zone.

The red-headed founder of a well-known prostitutes’ rights project spotted President Clinton, strolling with his retinue. “Bill!” she called out. “Do you want to have sex with ME?” Her generosity was rewarded with one of those expansive Clintonian smiles the rest of us only see on TV.

At AIDS 2012, the must-have item was a green Statue of Liberty crown defiantly stamped “Sex Worker? Visa Denied!.” During key sessions – such as “The Oldest Profession: Is Sex Work, Work?” – these Liberty crowns were displayed throughout the audience, on the heads of human rights wonks. Who might also be sex workers. Or not.

By Wednesday, stickers were appearing on water coolers: “Where are all the sex workers?”

Where indeed? The conference was just not the same without their visible presence.

Photo via NSWP

At AIDS 2008, 300 sex workers from everywhere gathered in Mexico City – and 500 marched from the Angel of Independence monument to El Zoaclo.(T-shirt was hot pink that year!) In Vienna, at AIDS 2010, African sex workers carrying red umbrellas, led a passionate pissed-off global protest against American policies (which affect more prostitutes in more places than you’d ever have imagined.) Videographer Paul Kidd wasn’t in DC this year, and neither were most of these protestors:

There were less than a hundred of us in DC! So… what happened?

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