More than 3,000 community leaders, activists, government officials, and others involved in the fight against AIDS turned out Sept. 10-13 for the 19th Annual United States Conference on AIDS, which was held at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C.
Paul Kawata, executive director of the National Minority AIDS Council, the D.C.-based group that organizes the annual event, said the turnout this year was the highest the conference has seen in the last five years and one of the highest ever.
Kawata was praised for his response to a decision by a group of transgender activists associated with Trans Lives Matter, to storm the stage at one of the conference’s main plenary sessions on Friday, Sept. 11, startling more than 1,000 people in attendance.
The trans activists, led by Los Angles transgender rights advocate Bamby Salcedo, said their aim was to protest what they said was the continuing inadequate response by several federal agencies to address HIV/AIDS in the transgender community, especially the impact of the epidemic on trans women of color.
In a development that prompted cheers from the audience, Kawata welcomed the trans activists to the conference and stage, handing Salcedo a microphone and inviting her to speak.
“I thought it was absolutely great,” Kawata told the Blade during the conference’s closing session on Sept. 13.
“And I think it was part of the power that they’re coming into as a community to stand up and say we’re not going to be second class,” he said. “I thought it was amazing.”
Salcedo told the Blade on Tuesday that she and her fellow trans activists wanted to make a strong statement that the Obama administration’s recently updated National AIDS Strategy document falls short in its coverage of addressing HIV/AIDS in the transgender community.
She noted that the Trans Lives Matter activists participating in what she called a direct action event at the conference plenary session released a formal statement directed to the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, or ONAP, that includes six demands seeking improvement in the office’s handling of trans-related issues.
Among other things, the statement raises strong opposition to what it says has been a policy of all federal health related agencies except the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to classify transgender women as gay or bisexual men, or MSM, in their HIV data collection process.
“We are not gay men,” Salcedo and her fellow activists shouted from the stage during the protest. Many in the audience joined them in that chant, according to sources present during the protest.
Salcedo said the protesters were not directing their complaints against the conference and NMAC, which she praised for being supportive of transgender concerns related to HIV/AIDS.
“They all came to me and said, no, it wasn’t about the conference,” said Kawata. “It was about the federal government. They are concerned that there isn’t enough funding and so their six-point demands all talked to the federal government.”
Among those attending the conference was ONAP Director Douglas Brook.
Neither Brook nor an ONAP spokesperson could immediately be reached.
“I thought it was a very, very important conference,” Kawata said. “We started to talk about race in a very different way around HIV and LGBT in all the different communities. So I was very happy with it.”
Kawata was referring to discussion in many of the conference sessions and workshops about how racial minorities, including African-American gay and bisexual men, continue to face disparities in access to HIV/AIDS-related services and programs by local, state and federal government agencies.
Among the government officials speaking at the conference were Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who’s considered one of the nation’s leading experts on AIDS; and U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Fauci told the Blade in a phone interview on Tuesday that his main message to the conference was that an end to the AIDS epidemic could come within the lifetime of most Americans.
“There is really now with our ability to treat people, to prevent infection, treatment as prevention, pre-exposure prophylaxis and all of those things – if we implement it properly there is absolutely no reason why we can’t see as an achievable goal the end of the AIDS epidemic within a reasonable period of time,” he said.
“I closed by saying we have within our grasp the tools right now – even though we have the challenge of a cure and a vaccine – we have the tools now that if we implement them aggressively we can actually see the end of this epidemic,” Fauci said.
Conference officials presented Pelosi with the Elizabeth Taylor Legacy Award in recognition of her longstanding commitment to the fight against HIV/AIDS.
“I am very, very honored. I am very, very moved,” Pelosi said. “I accept this award on behalf of so many people in my constituency in San Francisco who have taught our country so much about the AIDS epidemic.”
Pelosi noted that she participated in a House Budget Committee hearing in the 1980s when Elizabeth Taylor testified on behalf of efforts to boost government programs to fight AIDS. It was at a time, Pelosi said, when Taylor’s role as a movie star and celebrity who at the time became an AIDS activist drew needed attention to the AIDS epidemic.
D.C. group displays AIDS Heroes exhibit
In a Sept. 11 ceremony at the Walter Washington Convention Center, where several conference activities were held, veteran D.C. AIDS activist and conference host committee member Wallace Corbett presided over the installation of 25 new individuals and organizations designated as D.C. AIDS Heroes.
Corbett said he and others founded the AIDS Heroes designation in 1996 as a means of building awareness of HIV and AIDS among local communities of color.
The project has since become an exhibit consisting of black and white photos and short biographies of 230 “individuals, places, events, and organizations that have made an impact in the war against AIDS in Washington, D.C., over the past 32 years,” a write-up about the exhibit says.
Among those installed as AIDS Heroes at the Sept. 11 ceremony were local transgender activist Dee Curry; gay activist and community organizer Courtney Williams; D.C. Office of GLBT Affairs Director Sheila Alexander-Reid; former Whitman-Walker Health board member Riley Temple; former Whitman-Walker Health official and lesbian activist Pat Hawkins; and the D.C. LGBT Community Center.
Corbett said the collection is being stored at D.C.’s Martin Luther King Library. He said the part of the exhibit consisting of the 25 new Heroes is scheduled to be displayed at the D.C. LGBT Center on Sept. 25.
“The impact and the goal is that when the epidemic ends people need to know the history,” he said. “D.C. can tell their story through this collection.”