HIV Activism Center Stage at US Conference on AIDS

Heather Boerner

September 07, 2018

ORLANDO, Florida — "These are not normal times, so this shall not be a normal conference," Richard Zaldivar said during the opening plenary here at the United States Conference on AIDS (USCA) 2018.

"I get tired of hearing rants from the White House about Mexicans, about women, about immigrants, about transgender people, about people of color," said Zaldivar, who is executive director of the Wall Las Memorias Project, which provides HIV testing and prevention services to Latin communities in Los Angeles.

"Although I applaud all your work in your communities to prevent people from contracting HIV and to help them live longer lives, it's not enough," he told the physicians, providers, activists, and community members in the audience. "I am asking all of you to go back into the community and make a commitment to work with other organizations under attack."

Audience members snapped their fingers, flicked open paper fans, and chanted "talk about it!" to punctuate Zaldivar's points as he urged them to "rise up and act now" when transgender people are targeted for violence, when Muslims are singled out, when leaders "mimic and humiliate and violate women," and when millions stand to lose healthcare.

Opening plenary at USCA

"When 44% of new HIV diagnoses are among black people, you can't say all lives matter. When 47% of AIDS diagnoses are among black people, you can't say that all lives matter. Because we are only 12% of the population," Alicia Garza, cofounder of Black Lives Matter, told the cheering audience that packed the room.

"We don't live in a country or a world where all lives matter. And if we want to, we are going to have to fight like hell for it," she explained.

David Hogg, a survivor of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, stood on stage with a paper fan the colors of the transgender flag with the words "End Trans Gun Violence" on it. He began his talk by requesting a moment of silence to honor Delmonte Johnson, a gun-violence activist in the South Side of Chicago who was killed the previous day.

"Something we hear a lot from people is that we shouldn't be silent," he said. "We know silence equals death."

Abigail Echo-Hawk, director of the Urban Indian Health Institute in Seattle, started her talk by acknowledging that the gathering was being held on Indigenous land and ended it with an honor song to our "loved, valued transgender sisters" who are Indigenous and who have gone missing.

When community groups and providers come to her clinic or her community, Echo-Hawk tells them: "Don't come to us because you think we have the most problems. Come because we have the solutions."

This received one of several standing ovations.

HIV activists Naina Khanna, executive director of the Positive Women's Network USA, and Larry Scott-Walker, cofounder of Thrive SS, an HIV service organization, urged the audience to object publicly to the International AIDS Conference being held in San Francisco in 2020.

Khanna listed off policies that will affect travel to the meeting, or could, including a public charge rule that could make it impossible for people living with HIV to enter the United States, the Muslim travel ban, and the ban against injection-drug users visiting the country. In addition, she noted, some domestic policies disproportionately affect people living with HIV, such as work requirements for Medicaid recipients in some states and, potentially, work requirements for food assistance.

"Nothing about us without us is for us," said Scott-Walker, recalling the 1983 Denver Principles.

"We don't think a conference — an international AIDS conference — should be held in a country that excludes sex workers and people who use drugs and people who the president would say come from 'shithole' countries," he said. "We're not here to tell you what to feel. We're asking you to feel."

Joshua Caraballo, PsyD, from Latinos Salud, which runs health clinics in South Florida, said he was excited to attend his first USCA to learn as much as he could "to just become a better person, both as a professional and as a personal statement."

After the plenary, though, he said he was heading into the rest of the conference — and back to the daily work of juggling multiple grants with multiple requirements, news about public funding, and other situations — with a new sense of purpose.

"Today happens to be a day when these presentations reinforce" all the things that motivate him to keep wading through the bureaucracy and politics, he explained. "The key is to bring that passion, that motivation, back to the people who matter most, the people we are serving."

Zaldivar, Garza, Hogg, Echo-Hawk, Khanna, Scott-Walker, and Caraballo have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

United States Conference on AIDS (USCA) 2018. Presented September 6, 2018.

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