By Cheryl Overs, Senior Research Fellow, Michael Kirby Centre, Monash University
Last year I was refused boarding at Heathrow to go to the U.S., seemingly because there was information “on the system” that said I was a person of moral turpitude. I say seemingly because I don’t really know. U.S. immigration doesn’t explain its decisions. What we do know is that anyone who has worked in the sex industry, even in a legal capacity and even decades ago can be prohibited from entering the U.S. That is enough to make it very dangerous for sex workers to come to the International AIDS Conference by obtaining a visa without admitting to having been involved in the sex industry. So we hatched the idea of a conference hub in Kolkata, amid much debate about the politics of compromise. Those debates will no doubt continue through the conference, and I was delighted to be invited to give a plenary presentation to contribute to them. I am also pleased to have had a visa granted, because I am a person of high moral standing on any analysis and any slur on that is difficult to live with.
I took some time out of research work at Monash University in Australia and settled down to do what I have done dozens of times before: write a speech and put together a PowerPoint presentation. It then struck me that after 30 years in HIV prevention and care, this was the moment to put the most important points into 25 minutes. Dozens of words scrolled through my mind – discrimination, violence, vulnerability; clients; transgenders’ rights; law, migrant sex workers; access to services, meaningful involvement; U.S. immigration; condoms as evidence; safe commercial sex; legal services; children of sex workers; peer education; research ethics; trafficking; anti-trafficking – every one of them could be an hour-long presentation. The same words were scrolling across my computer screen in suggestions from friends working on one issue or another. I recognized the point at which a sensible person makes their selection and drafts an outline but instead I abandoned all common sense and wrote a speech that rivalled Fidel Castro for length and Muamar Gadddafi for clarity and focus. I came to my senses and hit delete. Then I plunged into unprecedented writer’s block. “What to do?” I tweeted between cupboard cleaning and Facebooking. “Fake my own death?” The replies were right; it passed. I chose the topics, wrote a first draft and distributed it to co-authors and mentors. They said they loved it and gave some good specific comments. I edited it and made some changes and sent it again and they all said I’d ruined it. They were right of course. I think we finally got there and if not, it’s too late now.
Then came the PowerPoint. I wanted to illustrate my points with images from the sex workers’ rights movement, so I trawled through years of wonderful images only to discover that most don’t have the pixel power to go to a big screen. I bothered my friends yet again to gather more material. I looked at dozens of wonderful videos and finally chose two to embed into the PowerPoint. How easy it is to write “to embed” and how difficult it is to achieve in practice. (Is Bill Gates coming to the conference? I want a word with him about computer programmes.)
I am lucky that I can laugh at myself at the same time as kicking myself for all of this, and that I have such a strong network of supportive friends and colleagues who have been so helpful and patient. But on a more serious note, I know why I have so uncharacteristically dithered. Being refused entry to the U.S. last year imprinted a message on my soul. No matter how empowered or educated a person who has worked in the sex industry becomes – even to the point of holding an academic post and being part of a U.N. Commission – there is no right to say anything or occupy any space, let alone the plenary lectern at a large international conference. That’s why it’s important I do this, and why those damned films had better work. It’s part of the solution.