Every two years, an International AIDS Conference takes place and attracts thousands of activists, policymakers, and public health professionals from around the world. In 2012 the International AIDS Conference (IAC) took place in Washington, DC from July 22 through 27. However, the United States has a travel ban in effect that restricts sex workers and drug users from entering the country. As a result, the Global Network of Sex Worker Projects organized a Sex Worker Freedom Festival in Kolkata, India, while American sex workers gathered in Washington, DC.
In the Global Village, the Red Umbrella Project created an audio installation, where listeners could stand under a red umbrella and listen to nine stories that were recorded at previous Red Umbrella Diaries events from the last few years.
At right, Erika (Speak Up! Media Training class of 2010) strikes a pose as she listens. Photo by PJ Starr.
Though we were small in numbers, sex worker rights activists at the conference made a big splash when we loudly disrupted a special session on the United States Congress and the global AIDS epidemic. Several minutes into the panel activists rose up from the audience, just as Senator Bill First praised panelists Senator Chris Coons (D-DE), Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY), Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA), and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) for their bipartisan support of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Although PEPFAR is the world’s largest government-generated fund for HIV/AIDS, it contains a policy, known as the “anti-prostitution pledge” that requires recipients of funds to oppose prostitution.
Together, activists raised red umbrellas, unfurled a banner reading “Stop Criminalization, Change PEPFAR”, and chanted “repeal the pledge, reform PEPFAR,” “sex workers’ rights are human rights,” and “nothing about us without us.” The activists made their way to the front of the packed room, to cheers from the audience, while Senator Frist tried to silence them. The group refused to step down, and remained seated at the front of the room for the duration of the session.
After the group sat down, Senator Frist introduced Representative Barbara Lee, who announced planned legislation, bill HR 6138, which was introduced the previous week (text not yet available), which will eliminate the anti-prostitution pledge in PEPFAR. As Rep. Lee exited the stage, the activists chanted “We love Barbara Lee!”
The below video, which was produced by the Red Umbrella Project, includes documentation of the disruption, Barbara Lee’s announcement about the new legislation, and commentary on the action by Kelli Dorsey (Different Avenues), Daisy McCloud (Red Umbrella Project), and Sharmus Outlaw (Desiree Alliance).
For more of a look at what sex workers and allies did at the DC conference, check out our Tumblr.