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HEALTH: Global Village or Sexual Minority Ghetto?

Zofeen Ebrahim

MEXICO CITY , Aug 7 2008 (IPS) - Dealing with transgenders (TGs) can be confusing. Even the organisers of the 17th International AIDS Conference underway in this city failed to accommodate the third gender by providing them separate toilets.

A stall in the Global Village. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

A stall in the Global Village. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

"I went to the male toilet only to be told I should go to the female one, where again I was told to try the male one!" Agniva Lahiri, 28, expressed her indignation while talking with IPS at the Global Village – the most happening and animated place in the entire Centro Banamex, venue of the Aug. 3-8 conference.

Lahiri declares that her ‘’political identity is TG’’ and ‘’not gay’’. She is an MSM (men who have sex with men) and has a male partner, but takes a passive role in the relationship. However, she refuses to do the housework back in Mumbai, India, where she comes from.

Lahiri admits that things are changing at international conferences. She has been to five international conferences over the last decade and insists: "The visibility of TGs is much better here than at previous ones.’’

Susan Lopez of the United States-based Desiree Alliance had similar praise for the conference. "The sex workers are very visible and there are a lot of sessions around their issues, no doubt, than ever before in the past." A former stripper, Lopez describes herself as a sex worker, and says she ‘’misses her work terribly’’.

In fact, for the first time, in the history of the AIDS conference, a plenary session had a sex worker for a speaker. "This is a great achievement," said Elena Reynaga, from Argentina’s RedTraSex, making a stirring case for full recognition of sex work and the rights of sex workers.

Reynaga said the contribution of sex workers in mounting effective response to the HIV pandemic cannot be ignored. She cited the example of Kolkata, India, where a strong movement of sex workers in the Songachi red light area of the city helped increase condom use from only 1.1 percent in 1992 to 90 percent by 1998.

"What did they do? They fought for their health by advocating for sex work to be recognised as legitimate work and by defending sex workers’ human rights," said Reynaga.

Taking the experts to task, she pointed out that funding was given without understanding the "real needs" of sex workers. "In many parts of the world, sex workers do not even have access to basics such as sufficient male and female condoms."

She also pointed out the times when funding comes with conditions. "I ask you how do you think sex workers can use ABC (Abstinence, Be faithful and Condom) as an effective HIV prevention tool? It is an affront to our work! The only letter that is of any use to us is C…"

But there are people like Dr. Janaki Vidanapathirana, a community physician from Sri Lanka, who are baffled by so much attention paid to sex work. "Nobody in his or her true mind wants to go into this field. They talk about it as if it was alright!" While she believes that sex workers should be given treatment and care and that prevention programmes should be designed for them, as is their right, she wonders why, "people here are not able to find the root cause of why people are selling sex," which is "poverty and poverty alone’’.

To Vidanapathirana experts are talking about behaviour change. But ‘universal action (the theme of the conference) now’ should also include behaviour development. They have to talk of those who have not yet joined the profession of selling sex but due to extreme poverty are vulnerable to going into sex work. "Why don’t they talk more of education, livelihood issues and economic empowerment so they leave this work?" But then Vidanapathirana has not met Lopez who emphasises that people must understand that "some of us have chosen this as our profession of our free will."

Bhanu Buduk, 23, from India is a Dalit (a low caste Hindu) and a TG who earns a living by dancing at weddings. "We can’t find work so we do this. Not only are we lowly paid but we face extreme harassment – from the police, our clients and even at times from our masters. When we are raped and we report it, the police ask us how we can be raped when we are men."

Lahiri has been working with this group to "reduce violence" in their work. "These dancers may provide their services to sometimes a dozen men in one single night, and if they cannot perform well enough they are beaten up and subjected to sadistic attacks,’’ she said.

Similar things happen in the U.S. where, says Lopez, when a prostitute is found dead, the police files are marked NHI (acronym for no human involved). "We are considered trash, less than human."

"Last year a stripper in Irvine, California, was raped but she lost the case because she was told by the judge that she was overtly sexual and got what she wanted!" narrated Lopez. In another case, an escort was gang-raped and the judge, that too a woman, said it was theft of service and not rape!"

Lopez calls the global village a "global ghetto where all of us are sequestered’’ and says the "pharmaceutical companies have been paid to keep us out of there".

And yet, it is the place where the experts and the leaders fighting for an AIDS free world can find answers to the problems they brainstorm over inside closed, sanitised rooms.

It is only in the global village that one can find graphic depictions of sex practices among men and ways to put on condoms, male or female. There are women doing pole dancing and condoms are everywhere, in a riot of colours and shapes. Few here have time to hear what the experts have to say or the steady exchange of information about the epidemic and its prevention.

A fashion show organised by Brazilian Davida, an organisation of sex workers, was a huge success and drew crowds too. Nets, furs, leather and lace, flying kisses, suggestive poses and blown up condoms, all made up the show.

"We want to show to the world that sex workers are not victims and we want our rights," said Gabriella. "I have a face and am not ashamed of my work," she said talking with IPS backstage. "I want more respect from people," said 40-year-old Carmen, a commercial sex worker for the past 24 years. "Grandiose, spectacular!" is how 44-year-old HIV positive Palo Gomex, a drag queen, termed the fashion show of which he was a part.

"I wish Peter Piot, executive director of the Joint U.N. Programme of HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) would hang out with us," says Tara Anne Sawyer, a TG from the U.S. She also showed discontent over U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s rather brief appearance at the official opening of the Global Village.

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