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Aids Conference Take 3: Lost in Translation

Aids Conference Take 3: Lost in Translation

* Photo above, a demonstration during the XVII International AIDS Conference, via AIDS2008.com.

There were too many reasons to come away depressed by the knowledge gathered and shared at the International AIDS Conference this week, so few reasons to be hopeful that a cure could be reached or that millions of lives could be saved. Currently, there is no cure in sight for AIDS, no vaccine for HIV. Major research efforts to come up with a fully preventive solution have stalled. The more you learn, the more you realize the whole situation is really is a failure of humanity, a failure for humanity.

One of the most startling statistics I picked up this week is that only a tiny percentage of people living with HIV or AIDS receive any kind of treatment, at all, meaning that millions -- millions -- of people are simply wasting away and dying. Those people are mostly poor and "marginalized." That means women and children living in poverty, MSM, or "men who have sex with men" and who live in societies where they are stigmatized or criminalized (gay sex is still a crime in more than 70 countries), drug users who get HIV by sharing needles, and sex workers.

That last group were truly in the spotlight this week.

For the first time a sex worker, Argentine activist Elena Reynaga, led a plenary session at the AIDS Conference. The plenary called for the de-criminalization of sex work and for increased self-determination for sex workers in defining their place in their countries and in the global fight against AIDS. "We want sex work to be recognized as 'work,'" Reynaga said. "We want to be free to do, free to make mistakes and free to learn. Free to decide what we, as sex workers, need. Free from repression -- this is the best way to build an effective response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic."

While the sex worker-led plenary is being widely celebrated as a breakthrough for the International AIDS Conference, there was a lingering sense that some sex workers -- at least those native to the host country, Mexico -- were not entirely welcome.

On Thursday afternoon, during a session on human rights and communities "vulnerable" to HIV, several Mexico City sex workers stood up to speak during the discussion and were mostly ignored. These were tall and busty transgendered women, speaking chilango Spanish in the brusque, aggressive manner that you might say is usual for their professional context. They were members of Brigada Callejera, a sex worker organization in Mexico City tied to the EZLN's "Otra Campaña."

Weirdly, I could feel the level of discomfort rising in the room as the women went on, describing the abuses they face at the hands of authorities and clients on the streets of D.F. Although one of the panelists spoke Spanish, he would not translate their comments. In fact no translation from the Spanish was available, even though there were people attending the session from many of the 175 countries represented at the conference -- which was conducted almost entirely in English.

At one point I literally heard a man behind me say under his breath in English, referring to the open microphone, "Turn it off."

Nonetheless, one of these women, 37-year-old "Krizna," told the room that sex workers were not all "victims" and that in Mexico City they support one another and organize against discrimination and abuse from police and other authorities. Later, Krizna, wearing casual jean shorts and a white T-shirt, told me that she knew of 30 sex workers in her group who applied for scholarships to attend the conference and only 11 were granted access.

"At the inauguration at the Auditorio Nacional, there was a protest inside when [Mexican President Felipe] Calderon said they gave free medications here. We said 'No,' that was a lie," Krizna said. "The police, they told several of us that when we left, that they were going to partir nuestra madre ('rip open our mouths,' a phrase packed with violence in Mexican Spanish), for being 'loudmouths.' But we will not be intimidated. ... These spaces are meant for denouncing. Silence reinforces the lies."

Krizna said she works on Calzado de Tlalpan. She identifies as transgendered because she still has male genitalia. "I enjoy ejaculation," she said. Krizna, proud of her work and her identity, also noted a bit dryly that "90-percent of the time" her clients pay to be penetrated, not the other way around.