Darby Hickey: It’s Not Just the US or IAS – We All Need to be Accountable
03 August 2012
Watch: Sex Worker Activists Disrupt Special Session on the US Congress’ response to HIV
As we look back on the International AIDS Conference, there are plenty of lessons and conversations to carry with us. As a transgender woman and a sex worker, I want to make sure that the theme of exclusion, which people who use drugs, people who trade sex and transgender people repeatedly raised, is not lost. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that governments (like the United States) and huge organizations (like the International AIDS Society and the other organizers of the IAC) are the only ones making choices that marginalize key communities. While we critique the US for its flawed immigration laws or the IAS and conference partners for deciding to hold the conference in DC despite the barriers to sex workers and drug users, we are not off the hook. Everyday – from small grassroots groups to well-resourced foundations – we make decisions that determine whether those most affected by HIV/AIDS can enjoy their health and human rights.
At two disruptions of conference sessions and during the We Can End AIDS march, many of us chanted “nothing about us without us.” The concept was reinforced in workshops and panels and even by some plenary speakers – Debbie McMillan said on Thursday morning, “If you include people like me in your program design, your programs will be better and more useful”. As we leave the conference, we must not leave this idea behind. We can’t focus on the criminalization of HIV transmission without connecting it to the broader use of policing and imprisonment as a means of social control. We can’t demand law reform to decriminalize drug use or sexual exchange without recognizing that many of those most often arrested on those charges will instead be targeted under other laws and societal discrimination. We can’t let our moral qualms about whether young people “should” be engaging in transactional sex guide our policy decisions, but instead must focus on how to support and empower them to keep safe, healthy and free of rights abuses. We can’t pretend that racism doesn’t taint every aspect of our fight against the epidemic – from the lack of people of color in prominent leadership positions to lack of analysis about race, power and health.
What’s more, we must interrogate the common practice within the AIDS world of hiring or paying people from key communities (transgender, formerly incarcerated, youth, and so on) to give input only on “their issues.” Sex workers have insight into policy issues beyond criminalization of sexual exchange. Transgender people can write grants and run programs. People who use drugs can develop evaluation models and plan campaigns – including those not directly related to drug use, believe it or not.
An example from my own experience: in developing our statement on US policy regarding sex work and HIV ahead of the conference, US-based sex workers made a bunch of mistakes. At different moments we failed to fully consult widely with our communities, we left out critical policy issues, and we failed to clearly identify the groups and individuals involved in drafting the declaration. But we listened to critiques – and critiqued ourselves – and worked to address them in multiple ways. If we produced a document that did not reflect and have buy in from the most affected people in our communities, it would be worthless. Moving forward we have more work to do to ensure inclusion. But it is essential work.
Turning the tide on AIDS, turning the tide on human rights, must lift all boats. Anything less is like bailing water from a sinking cruise ship.
Darby Hickey is a writer, activist and DJ in Washington, D.C.