AIDS 2012: Protesters disrupt congressional panel on AIDS

Protesters disrupt a congressional panel moderated by former Sen. Bill Frist (left) at the 19th International AIDS Conference.

Protesters disrupt a congressional panel moderated by former Sen. Bill Frist (left) at the 19th International AIDS Conference. Chris Johnson, Washington Blade

WASHINGTON — Protesters disrupted an HIV/AIDS panel discussion on Wednesday involving members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, accusing the Republican senators of blocking efforts to thwart the disease at home and abroad.

The activists, many of whom were affiliated with the umbrella group called the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, stormed the dais where the members of Congress began speaking shortly after former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, who was serving as moderator, started the event at the 19th international AIDS conference in D.C.

Chris Johnson, Washington Blade

Protesters disrupt a congressional panel moderated by former Sen. Bill Frist (left) at the 19th International AIDS Conference.

The session was titled, “The United States Congress & the Global AIDS Epidemic.” In addition to Frist, four sitting members of Congress took part: Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

Chanting “Repeal the pledge for PEPFAR” and ringing cowbells, protesters called on Congress to repeal the portion of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, requiring organizations that receive money under the program to have policies against prostitution — even though sex workers around the world are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS. Protesters later chanted, “Sex workers rights are human rights!”

Many of the protesters carried red umbrellas. Their signs read, “U.S.A. Repeal the Anti-Prostitution Pledge” and “Export Justice; Not Bad Policy.” A banner unfurled before the dais read, “Export Justice: Not Bad Policy.”

The shouts continued for about five minutes as Frist seemed helpless in his efforts to regain control of the panel even after he said activists had made their point. After one protester said, “You have the floor, senator,” discussion on the panel began to proceed.

But as the members of Congress began to speak activists continued to criticize Republican members of the panel throughout the event — and not all the shouts were about U.S. aid to protect sex workers overseas against HIV/AIDS.

After Enzi gave his remarks recalling the process leading to passage of PEPFAR, protesters shouted, “What about epidemic at home? Where’s the Senate bill?” Enzi replied he’s voted twice to reauthorize funding for the Ryan White Care Act, which provides AIDS drugs to low-income people. The AIDS Institute later affirmed that Enzi twice voted for the measure in 2006 and 2009.

Frist also came to Enzi’s defense, saying the Wyoming senator has traveled to Africa seven times since his initial visit to monitor progress that U.S. global funds have been making on HIV/AIDS.

Rubio didn’t fare any better. When he began speaking, a member of the audience criticized the senator, saying the level of HIV criminalization is higher in Florida than any other part of the country. Another protester silently held up a sign reading, “Rubio Make Mitt Ends AIDS.”

Still, Rubio, a Tea Party favorite, seemed amenable to the United States confronting HIV/AIDS despite his general opposition to government spending, saying foreign aid represents about 1 percent of the U.S. budget and wouldn’t significantly reduce the deficit if taken away.

But the situation was different for Democratic lawmakers, particularly Lee, who last week introduced a bill in Congress called the “Ending HIV Act,” which, among other things, would repeal the ban prohibiting PEPFAR funds from going to sex workers. One protester before the dais held up a sign saying, “We <3 Barbra Lee.” Coons also didn’t endure significant barbs.

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