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Blog: Bursting my AIDS 2010 bubble

Vienna, 22 July 2010 (IRIN) - This is my second International AIDS Conference and now I know for sure, Mexico wasn’t a fluke – I really do love these gatherings. I love the passion of the speakers, the excitement the boffins create around their new research and the “let’s all get behind this” spirit the activists bring.

It’s a bubble of great energy where donors in suits mix with loud and proud sex workers, where faith-based NGOs hang out with men who have sex with men and where HIV-positive people are the cool kids that everyone wants to hang out with.

Rushing through the halls of Vienna’s Messe Centre to an abstract session this morning, I was distracted by a big brand condom stand. The attractive young woman manning the stand was demonstrating how to use a dental dam (I’m ashamed to say I’d never seen one). Her audience couldn’t have been more cosmopolitan - middle-aged African men, young Asian women, people you would ordinarily never imagine going anywhere near a vibrating ring - all held rapt by her spiel about the various scents and colours the dams came in.

As I walked away from the stand, I thought how great it was that such intimate subjects could be talked about so openly.

Later on, as I was leaving the media centre to get some lunch, I found myself slap-bang in the middle of a group of sex workers fiercely protesting the so called anti-prostitution pledge, which requires all organizations that receive funding from the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to explicitly oppose prostitution and sex trafficking. Red umbrellas in hand, and chanting, “PEPFAR kills sex workers”, they barrelled past the hapless volunteers ‘guarding’ the media centre.

As the sex workers ran through the centre, they were joined by random delegates, posed for pictures with others and stopped to chat with curious onlookers. Again, I thought – how fab, how cool that we are living in an age when transgendered sex workers can walk around in public without fear of reprisals.

My warm, fuzzy feeling continued as I walked past a poster bearing the image of a suggestively cheeky young woman asking the question: “Will you touch yourself in bed tonight?” The poster is the work of The Pleasure Project, which aims to make safe sex sexier by promoting fantasy and erotica.

At the end of the day I hopped into a taxi, and, as you do in rush hour traffic, struck up conversation with my friendly cabbie. He wanted to know what the conference was about. When I told him, he wanted to know what there was to say about HIV. I mentioned new developments in treatment and prevention. He said, “You mean there is medicine for HIV?”

By this stage, I was already coming down from my high; how can an educated man who has lived in Vienna for 10 years and speaks three languages not know about antiretroviral treatment? I reasoned that Austria only has about 6,000 people living with HIV; that might explain why he’d never heard about it.

The questions continued. “Why can’t people stick with one partner? One woman is enough for life,” he said. A valid argument for faithfulness as a way to prevent HIV, I thought.

“I take people from nightclubs at the weekend – they dance in the clubs and then do another type of dance afterwards.”

My happy bubble was doing a dangerous, fragile dance around me.

And then the kicker: “I think this HIV disease is a punishment from God.”

It’s safe to say that by the time I got to my hotel half an hour later, I was very clear that while the AIDS conference is a wonderful environment, it’s just a bubble representing what we wish could be the reality. The truth is, much of the new research will still not be implemented by the next conference, most of the delegates will return home where they will not talk publicly about condoms, most of us will not be chatting with sex workers, and HIV-positive people will go back to a life of stigma, discrimination and for many, criminalization.

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