Wednesday, July 25, 2012

From San Francisco to the Washington International AIDS Conference: The AIDS Struggle and Queer Activism Continue

AIDS activists rampaging through the Montreal and San Francisco International AIDS conferences of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s create indelible images of the battle against disease and indifference.  These images highlight a movement of hopeful, angry activists disrupting the powers that be, reminding the world that something had to be done: “Pills Cost Pennies, Greed Costs Lives.”  “Ten years, one billion dollars, one drug” screamed hundreds outside of the offices of the National Institute of Health offices in Bethesda MD, during ACT UP’s storm the NIH action of 1990.  I can think of no disease which has garnered this same kind of fury.  But god knows the pain transcends it, as people across the world, and with any number of diseases sit in waiting rooms hoping for something to alter their fate or cut through the red tape.  Two decades after the NIH zap and the last International AIDS Conference in Washington, the conference came back to the US, along with the lingering memories of lost friends, stigma and inequalities spreading it which just do seem to go away.

Pearl and Michael at the drag march!

I first started thinking about going back to the conference during drinks with Michael Tikili.  We were reviewing the goings on at the drag march over drinks at Julius, a West Village bar where the Mattachine Society used a variation of the NAACP race test to guarantee the right of openly gay people to be served  in New York. “Get on the Queerocracy Bus,” Tikili pushed, ever the organizer, ever over drinks. He swore he was going to be checking to make sure I was on board.

Housing Works zap by Lucile Scott

Let me know how it does, she asked as I got off the phone.

After I spoke with her, I spoke with Jennifer Flynn, who had just posted the following press release.


35+ Buses Rolling into Washington, DC

Over 30,000 -- DC residents, US activists from across the country & global delegates alike – to march to illuminate the social and economic costs of putting profit in front of the resources, rights and policies that can end AIDS

Washington, DC: In a time in which science has shown the path to literally end the AIDS epidemic, and the Occupy movement has spotlighted the inequitable use of resources that constrain these and other efforts, more than 30,000 people living with HIV and other AIDS activists from hundreds of organizations worldwide will join to demand rights and resources to confront and cure HIV/AIDS.

The mobilization, entitled We Can End AIDS, will begin Tuesday, July 24, 2012 at 12 noon as five distinct branches flood downtown Washington with a range of creative and powerful actions. The marches, scheduled to occur during the International AIDS Conference, will snake through the streets of the District, including K Street, New York Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue, meeting Lafayette Park at 1 pm to deliver a powerful collective message to the White House and the world: To end the AIDS pandemic, we demand the political will necessary to ensure economic justice for all and to defend and protect the human rights of our marginalized communities, including people living with HIV & AIDS."

We Can End AIDS was created to draw attention to finding showing that, with only modest increases in funding and appropriate policies, the world could see the end of the AIDS pandemic within 30 years. We Can End AIDS is demanding the economic justice and human rights to make this a reality. 

Bolstered by HPTN 052, the study which proved that treatment is an effective form of HIV prevention, and which indicated that widespread treatment could thus end the epidemic in a generation, each of the five branches of the mobilization points to what is needed to achieve this outcome:

· Demand an end to pharmaceutical greed- east side of Mt. Vernon Square (7th and K)

· Demand a Robin Hood Tax on Wall Street to end AIDS-west side of Mt. Vernon Square (9th and K)

Stop the war on women- : corner of 7th and Mass in front of church

· Demand sound public policies and full funding-Archives/Navy Memorial station (green line south to Archives)

· Protect human rights: end mass imprisonment and criminalization, and support harm reduction. K Street west of b/t 9th &10th

“People with HIV and other AIDS activists will be occupying every corner of Washington, DC’s power corridor in the middle of the day during the work week to make sure we are visible. No one can then say that they didn’t know that if they took action, we could end AIDS – and they will have to live with themselves and the ghosts of millions if they choose to ignore us,” says Nadine Bloch, We Can End AIDS Coalition Coordinator. 

The International AIDS Conference will be held in Washington, DC from July 22-28th in Washington DC, a city with HIV rates higher than 32 African countries. 

Follow: #endAIDS,

I was supposed to ride on the Queerocracy Bus leaving Brooklyn at 6 AM the next morning. An email the day before declared.



BUS INFO: There will be 2 different pick-up / drop-off spots.


PICK UP 2: GMAD (Gay Men of African Descent) OfficeBrooklyn
44 Court Street, Suite 1000
Brooklyn, NY 11201
Nearest Subway: N R at Court Street, 2 3 at Borough Hall, 4 5 at Borough Hall
Leaving NYC: 6 AM
Leaving DC: 3:30 PM
Leaving NYC: 6 AM
Leaving DC: 8 PM


QUEEROCRACY is marching in the Human Rights and Harm Reduction march of the We Can End AIDS Mobilization.
These are the demands: End the War on Drugs and Drug Users and Confront HIV Criminalization, Stigma, Mass imprisonment and Anti-LGBTQ Violence and Discrimination.

Walking down Court Street to meet the bus, the sun was just rising.  Most of the stores were closed.  And there, in front of Borough Hall, a group of activists was milling about, getting coffee. Camilo and Cassidy were there wearing Queerocracy t-shirts, to greet everyone.  They handed those entering the bus maps for the day’s action and a pamphlet entitled, “SERO + What You Need to Know about Laws  that Prosecute People Living with HIV.”  Reading through the pamphlet, I wondering about Hushawn Williams, the HIV positive African American man who inspired a sex panic statewide when several of his partners tested positive in the fall of 1997 in New York.  Fifteen years later, the majority of people with HIV are from communities of color. And the conflation of race, sex, and HIV still proves a noxious brew capable igniting a vocabulary of punitive motives, increased penalties, jail time, and stigma.  HIV activism takes many forms, yet at its core the struggle against stigma remains its a core imperative.

            “So how did Queerocracy begin?” I asked once we got on board.
            “During a class called Queering the Media at the New School, we started organizing…. That was something like 2010,” noted Camilo. It is amazing to see a new cohort of multi issue organizers ready to take on a broad based queer agenda:  Their website declares:

Leaving Brooklyn, I looked out at the morning light shining in through the windows, everyone sitting chatting with anticipation.  So many trips to DC for anti-war, AIDS demos.  I recalled the last time I tried to go to DC to get arrested, our bus did not leave till 10 AM, arriving way after the action had begun. Would this time be any different?  It is hard to know, but AIDS is still here.  So we need to be there to make those in power know we are still watching them, still ready to keep their feet to the fire.  As we passed the Verrazano Narrows bridge, I wondered about the man who had tried to jump off the night before, only to be talked down by the police.  Whether an exercise in futility or self determination, our actions still matter.  So does AIDS activism.

Cassidey stood to talk about what we would do in DC.  We were to take part in the Human Rights and Harm Reduction March.  The group would demand an end to the war on drugs, drug users, etc.  Our route would take us past UPS and Wells Fargo branches where we would zap these institutions for their support of politicians who back the ban on syringe exchange and increases in the prison industrial complex.

Ninety minutes into the drive, we stopped in Delaware.  Other buses from VOCAL and carrying activists from around the city were there as well.  Asking activists what they wanted to see happen, many simply hoped for more attention to the issue.  A larger theme was a push against efforts to criminalize condom possession among sex workers, a policy which seems to target a very specific stigmatized population.  It is not like college students are discouraged from carrying condoms.  It is the opposite.  But for sex workers to carry condoms signals some form of intent, which the law seems to target without considering unintended consequences.  At the conference in Oxford I attended earlier in this summer, a man suggested that the US is in a constant state of moral panic.  While the different sex panics arise in different times, places and contexts, the root as well as well as consequence was the same. It is the same panic. Those igniting it still seem to push for social control.  Douglas Crimp once suggested that the melancholia of AIDS activism is fighting all these panics, which ebb and flow, ever ready to rise again if activists ever let their guards down. 
Walking back to the bus, a man commented on my “Silence=Death” shirt.  “I have not seen that in years.  Those guys were really crazy, really crazy,” he noted approvingly.
“They still are,” I followed.
“Not like they were, not like they were at all.”  He paused.  “I have had this since I was 14 years old. My mother wouldn’t let me take AZT.  She said, ‘you are not going to treat my son like a guinea pig.  I’m going to wait till they really show results.’  That was 28 years ago when they didn’t even call it HIV.”
“There should be a cure,” I noted.
            “There is a cure.  They just don’t want people to know it yet. That’s going to get in the way of $136,000.00 a year per PWA in medications sales for big pharma.  There is a profit motive everywhere in this.”
            Getting back on the bus, I could not help but think he was right. 

            Arriving in DC, the energy increased on the bus.  Seeing the Capital, I am always in awe of the capacity of people to be such rascals, the pure audacity to do so little with the opportunities presented those in government to serve the larger good.

            We arrived at 7th and K and joined the mingling delegates and activists. 

            I ran into Michael Tikili, asking him why he was here.  Wearing a Robin Hood outfit calling for a financial transaction or Robin Hood Tax, he explained that he was in DC for a whole range of reasons.  Some of these included fighting for funding for more treatment, which serves as prevention, as well as increased services and a cure. “I don’t want to be on these meds my whole life,” he explained.  “Who knows what these meds are going to do to my kidneys over the next three decades?  Taking medications every day is not fun.  And it is easy to be non-adherent.”  Yet, instead of talking about a cure, our government is giving more powers to big pharma.  Pharma’s greed kills.  We really need to be talking about AIDS drugs for all, not a Trans Pacific Partnership, argued Tikili.  His sentiment was echoed by Public Citizen, which decried the Tran Pacific Partnership supported by the administration.

The march kicking off!

Obama Trade Pact Could Impede ‘AIDS-Free Generation’
Rollbacks of Modest Bush-Era Improvements on Access to Medicines Would Empower Big Pharma, Expand Monopolies

WASHINGTON, D.C. – To achieve the “AIDS-free generation” for which President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, among others, have called, we must break the monopoly power of drug companies and change the U.S. approach to trade pacts, Public Citizen said today.

The Obama administration is negotiating a multilateral “Trans-Pacific Partnership” (TPP) free trade agreement with countries in Asia and the Americas, intended to expand to the entire Asia-Pacific region. Leaked documents reveal that U.S. demands for the TPP would radically expand pharmaceutical monopoly power, keeping treatment costs high and threatening to impede the common goal of an “AIDS-free generation.”

“An AIDS-free generation is an audacious and wonderful goal,” said Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines program, who is participating in the “We Can End AIDS” mobilization and march on Tuesday during the International AIDS conference here. “But ending AIDS will depend in part on massively scaling up access to treatment. A major obstacle is the monopoly power of the giant pharmaceutical companies, which leads to vastly higher costs than could be achieved through expanded generic competition. Today, U.S. trade policy threatens to undermine U.S. AIDS policy. It is very important that the Obama administration rethink its position on trade and access to medicines.” 

Since 2000, generic competition has facilitated a treatment revolution, driving down costs for older HIV/AIDS medicines from more than $10,000 per person, per year to less than $100 today. More than eight million people with HIV/AIDS in developing countries are receiving treatment; very few would be receiving life-saving medicines without the plunge in prices. This year, new science demonstrated that treatment can be effective as HIV prevention. For the first time it is becoming possible to map out an end to the epidemic. But many newer medicines needed to achieve an AIDS-free generation still cost thousands of dollars per person, per year. Generic competition could bring treatment costs down again, but only if patent- and test data-based monopolies can be overcome.

“When it comes to access to medicines, price is a life-and-death matter,” Maybarduk said. “The high costs of patent-based monopolies, particularly for newer, critical, second- and third-line HIV/AIDS medicines, seriously limit the ability of governments and donors to boost treatment access.”

For instance, a key AIDS drug known as lopinavir + ritonavir is sold by Chicago-based pharmaceutical giant Abbott Laboratories under the brand names Kaletra and Aluvia. Abbott’s anti-competitive actions are keeping prices for this important medicine high and limiting the ability of donors and governments to scale up treatment. Abbott prices Kaletra at $400 per person, per year in the world’s poorest countries, and much higher — from $1,000 to around $4,000 — in other developing nations.

The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) cited Abbott’s patent claims as a “key driver” of high second-line treatment costs in partner country Vietnam. Vietnam also is one of the countries negotiating the TPP. Obama administration demands for the trade pact would require Vietnam to eliminate legal tools designed to prevent bad patents, including a mechanism that was used recently to successfully challenge a Kaletra patent application and preserve generic competition in India. Vietnam and other TPP countries – as well as PEPFAR – could benefit from these tools.

A 2007 agreement between the Democratic congressional leadership and the Bush administration set certain limits on patent and test data provisions affecting pharmaceutical access and began to reduce the negative effects of U.S.-negotiated free trade agreements on access to medicines in developing countries. But Obama administration proposals for the TPP roll back these modest reforms, making patent extensions mandatory, linking marketing approval to patent status and expanding exclusive controls over clinical test data. The U.S. TPP proposals would require countries to make patents available for new uses and minor variations of older medicines, even if these changes do not enhance the efficacy of the medicines, among several other provisions that could harm access. a

For more information about this week’s events, visit For more information about Public Citizen’s Global Access to Medicines program, visit

Finishing my conversation with Tikili, the Pharma march was taking off down Mt. Vernon. 

            “People over pharma!” screamed activists, carrying signs decrying the influence of big pharma on politics and public health. 

            “Generics for all!” read one, “Tax the rich!” declared another.

            By this point, the Harm Reduction March kicked off. 

            “Fight poverty, fight aids, tax  Wall Street!” screamed those in the march.

            “An economy for the 99%” read one sign.

            “Women united will never be defeated!”

            “Who are we?” rapped one of the leaders of the Robin Hood March, to a group wearing Robin Hood outfits. 
            “Robin Hood” screamed the crowd.
            “We need a Robin Hood Tax!”
            Running up K Street, I joined the Harm Reduction March in progress.  Trailing the march was a group of sex work advocates wearing blue T shirts with the words: “Rockin the Boat for Sex Workers!”  Earlier in the week, they had disrupted the opening of the conference over the exclusion of sex workers and drug users, still subject to a travel ban.

"Stop arresting me for carrying condoms at work" Andy's sign declared.

            “Sex workers rights are human rights!” they screamed. 
            “Nothing about us, without us!” explained Andy, who was walking with the group.  “I just want us to be part of the conversation.” Yet, instead of talk with sex workers, policy makers appear poised to recriminalize the practice.  “People need to be re taught. We need to be in the conversation.”
            “Fight HIV, not people using drugs” screamed the crowd. 
            “The war on drugs is war on us!”
            “Sex worker rights are human rights!”           

Mindy C. at the Harm Reduction March!

            My friend Mindy Chateauvert marched along with the group.  Her work, “Sluts Unite! Stories of Sex Workers Fighting for Respect and Justice is coming out next year.  “Sex workers are banned from the US and the International Conference!” she explained when I asked why she was here.  She was at the action to fight the ban.  Without an activist presence inside, much of the topic is being whitewashed from the conference.  This did not keep her from screaming with righteous anger.

            My friend Trevor Hoppe was on hand to speak out as well as speak about the push to criminalize HIV disclosure
            In between zaps decrying the politic donations of UPS and Wells Fargo, I spoke with Ken of ACT UP.  “Do you think this is an industry gathering or a strategy session to stop the epidemic?”  I asked him.  The former he answered.  He noted he was in the streets to get the IAC to pay attention. 

            Walking through the convergence of housing, syringe exchange, sex work, and immigration activists, I was impressed with the picture of what AIDS/Queer activism could look like in the streets. 

Harm reduction activists have pushed AIDS /queer activism in countless directions!

            Wearing a statue of liberty hat decrying the sex workers locked out of the US, Julie Davids noted that she was happy to see so many groups and movements intersecting.  “It shows HIV is an intersectional form of activism.”  We talked about the push for a cure, which she seemed to think, was real, thanks to activists who were pushing for it.

            Walking towards the White House, I heard someone scream.
            “We’re fired up!”
“Can’t take it no more!” the crowd responded.  It was my old friend Eddy from CitiWide and now NYHRE, losing his voice. All the marches were now intersecting.

            Walking up to the White House, I saw Greg Bordowitz filming the event, as he has for decades now.


            Sean Strub walked by.  His activism has really pushed activists to push the fight against HIV criminalization.  He was standing with Susanne Braun Levine, a writer whose subject is friendships.  For me, this is what AIDS activism is all about.  Whenever I see Sean we recall our friend Steven Gendin.  Strub showed me a full paper list of friends he was remembering at the Names Quilt display earlier on.  Levine and I shared some thought about this brand of friendship.  We are all stronger and better able to cope with life when we have friends around, she explained.  It is a point Victor Frankyl made.  And certainly this applies to the AIDS struggle, like much of life.  Her point of course was that girlfriends, friends, are good for your health.  I could not agree more.

Jack, Peter and the author hanging out by Liz Highleyman

            Walking through the crowd, I saw my friends Peter and Jack of  Le Petit Versailles Community Garden in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  I sat with the two of them, greeting chums such as Liz Highleyman and Felix, a fierce activist who bridges AIDS activist, Occupy and Faerie circles in New York.  Jack and I talked about the friends who have come and what the world would be like if they were still around.  “It was just a matter of course to become AIDS activists,” explained Jack who lived in the East Village at the virus first raged.  “All our friends were dying.”  Peter noted that he just wanted some kind of an acknowledgement that this is still going on, that AIDS is not over.
Felix at Occupride. Photo by Mickey Z

Felix chilled out.  Intersecting between Occupy, VOCAL, and  Faerie circles he is one of a kind.

Had a great talk with Felix, Peter and Jack!

            “I think they will find a functional cure,” noted Highleyman, my former copy editor and friend.  “Not eradicate it.”  Just behind us lay a banner from the AIDSPolicyProject, who have pushed for the government to tripled it funding for cure research.  They hope the NIH will quadruple this to $240 million per year.  

Amanda Lugg was speaking:  “You  cannot end AIDS without human rights.”  She concurred that a cure was on the horizon. But, she asked: “Are we on track?”  No one was really sure.  “We need agreements to get people drugs, not trade agreements or campaign donations.”

Amanda Lugg speaking by Kaytee Riek

Walking over for the scripted CD, I saw Eric Sawyer who walked along with Felix and I.  Eric is one of the hero’s of this whole battle, still at it after so many years and struggles, with ACT UP, Housing Works, and Healthgap. 

This author and Eric Sawyer photo by Liz Highleyman

“We are people with AIDS! We are alive!” screamed a speaker as we left to roars of the crowd.

Michael Tikili leaving a message for the White House by Liz Highleyman

At the White House, Charles King, Eustacia Smith and Michael Tikili stood with other activists putting ribbons and messages from those gone.  Police swarmed and a few marshals pushed to get people to move away.  “I guess this is it,” noted Sawyer as we were guided away.
Eddie and Imani Henry and a number of others were dismayed at the way the crowed was pushed back, even by supporters  “We need to have a little chaos” noted Eddie.  Really.

            Yet, sometimes it is hard to fight as much as remember.  Standing there, I saw Raffi, now running a syringe exchange in Puerto Rico.  And we talked about our friend Michael who just died. 

            Walking away, I strolled into Gina Quattrochi, the Executive Director of Baily House.  I asked her how it had gone inside the sessions.  “They used the words structural drivers of the epidemic several times,” noted Quattrochi.  That was a surprise. Words such as social determinants in health are not a common part of the parlance, she explained, at least not in these sessions.  Yet, all that might be changing.  “We have to end poverty to end the AIDS epidemic,” the head of the World Bank said.  And there was even a Housing Summit, where delegates talked about housing at prevention, a well supported argument made by housing providers for decades now.  So maybe things might be changing.  “It only took thirty years.”  

Fight Poverty, Fight AIDS, Tax Wall Street!

            With horses separating activists from the White House, one activist suggested this was the perfect visual image for the White House’s approach – distancing itself from the movement and voices of people with HIV/AIDS. 

Horses separating us from the White House.

            “We can end AIDS now” the crowd roared.

There are a range of feelings which accompany such a day.  “Thanks to the LGBT community's early demands for the accelerated approval of medicines and universal access to treatment, today eight million people in low- and middle-income countries are alive and on HIV treatment. They have secured the right to health for millions,” Eric Sawyer would later post to the ACT UP Alumni page on facebook.  The historic impact of ACT-UP -- the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power -- cannot be underestimated. 

Eric S. and the this author. 

            On  my way back to the bus, I ran the man talked to in Delaware.  Some were smoking; others eating ice cream and getting on the buses.  I asked how it had gone for him. Pretty good, he said.  How about you? He asked.  Eh.  “A little disappointed,” he noted.  Yea. Take care. And I got on our bus. I was reminded of my first AIDS demonstration two decades prior.  I recalled the excitement of the trip to Sacramento when possibly starts the day.  One feels or hopes this thing might end.  We spread ashes of loved ones lost to the epidemic on the steps of the state house.  Horses rushed us.  People were trampled and arrested, and we went home, and crashed.  Looking at the sleeping activists on the bus home, I thought of the trip home from my first AIDS demo in Sacramento, the same look of the tired bodies, cozy, crumbled into each other, embracing the same fatigue, the same effort to fight off an illness which in so many ways is life itself.   The epidemic was still with us, is still with us.  And so are the memories of the comrades passed, as well as comrades remaining. 

Some friends leave a message at the White House by Peewee Nyob


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