Folks – there’s some AIDS Conference traditions that I was not privy to until I was an “insider.” Every morning, there are is a plenary session where Very Important People give speeches. Over the course of the week, a diversity of topics are covered. The plenary sessions are held in the largest session room in the ICC, which means you need to be registered for the conference and wearing a name badge in order to enter.
Here’s the interesting insider part: After several instances of activists interrupting plenaries on stage, the conference has a policy of allowing the activists to stand on the stage and make their point. And in many cases, the activists will get permission from the speaker beforehand and the speaker will include something in their speech that will cue the protesters to come onto the stage. Shannon Weber said that most plenary speakers should not be surprised if they are interrupted by an action.
Anyway, early bird gets the worm, so on the first morning plenary, we were in our seats at 8:00 AM with a crowd of other people in be-sloganed t-shirts. Shannon and I had scavenged some cardboard at the hotel and spent our breakfast making signs, which we had with us as well. We were prepared for the first major plenary action of the conference!
It was one of these people who also gave us a new lanyard for our name badges, so we could swap out the corporate logo for an NGO one. Much more our style ☺.
I would also like to note that while waiting to take over the stage, I was introduced to Twitter by a Senator from Colorado, Pat Steadman. I returned the favor and gave him some Snapchat tips, thereby fulfilling one of my AIDS 2016 jobs (teaching adults about social media).
During Tuesday morning’s plenary, we participated in an action to protest the criminalization of HIV/AIDS in various countries around the world. Organizers for the action coordinated with Judge Edwin Cameron from the Constitutional Court of South Africa. He made a point in his speech about ending criminalization and summoned the protesters to the stage.
Judge Edwin Cameron and a sign language translator
The chant as the stage was taken over was: “We have a virus. We are not criminals. End criminalization now!”
In Canada, legislation requires HIV-positive people to disclose their status to partners before engaging in sexual activity. Citizens can be prosecuted for not complying. In the United States, it is illegal in some states to spit on, bite, or touch another person with your blood if you are HIV-positive, and there are people serving prison sentences as a result of this. If you want to learn more about HIV criminalization in the United States, The Center for HIV Law and Policy has a 2010 study that was updated last fall. Globally, 72 countries have laws that criminalize persons with HIV/AIDS or their actions in some way. The HIV Justice Network has an international report, also completed last fall, concerning global advocacy for ending the criminalization of HIV/AIDS. Fun fact: the foreword of the report was written by Edwin Cameron, the plenary speaker!
The problem with criminalization is that it puts seropositive people at higher risk. They are less likely to seek out treatment and other forms of assistance if there is chance of discrimination or legal intervention. It also means the virus continues to disproportionately grow in low-resourced, disadvantaged areas. The possibility of ending HIV/AIDS is nearly impossible when those infected with it are prevented from speaking out and prevented from living full and healthy lives.
The action on Tuesday called attention to the injustices suffered by those living with HIV/AIDS, as well as the current work to reverse laws that criminalize the virus. The YouTuber MyFabulousDisease also covered the action, and included footage from the Beyond Blame session on ending criminalization:
If you want to learn more about the efforts to end HIV/AIDS criminalization, I would recommend visiting some of the sites mentioned in the MyFabulousDisease Video, the HIV Justice Network, the Center for HIV Law and Policy, as well as following #beyondblame and #endhivcriminalization on social media.