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International | International AIDS conferees leave science and sensibility at the door

Issue: "Katrina: One year later," Aug. 26, 2006

Warning: Graphic material

TORONTO - At the pavilion of the Toronto Youth Force, delegates to the 16th International AIDS Conference could scoop up as many free condoms as they wished. Late one afternoon during the six-day meeting, four teenage girls manned the busy desk behind piles of fliers promoting HIV prevention and blasting the United States' "Social Conservatives' War on Condoms."

Jessica Wilson, 16, sporting a bright yellow T-shirt emblazoned with the word "sex," said, "I don't feel that he does anything," in commenting on President George Bush's worldwide anti-AIDS efforts."He's more interested in the oil industry and making money off of war."

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Anti-Bush feeling runs hot through this now-biannual event, and 2006 was no different. This time, however, conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper also won punching-bag status: When he declined to attend the conference, stickers popped up everywhere asking, "Where's Harper?"

With a theme of "Time to Deliver" and emphasis on increasing the availability of already-known HIV treatments and preventions, the Aug. 13-18 Toronto event was the largest ever, drawing 24,000 delegates from around the world.

Originally begun 21 years ago as a forum for scientists to explore a mysterious new disease, the conference has since ballooned into an advocacy-fest for the left. Now many scientists are skipping the conference in favor of other, more focused gatherings, complaining that the quality of research papers has declined. But big names continue to give it credibility: former President Bill Clinton and CEO-turned-philanthropist Bill Gates made extended appearances in Toronto.

Activism is nowhere as colorful as in the aisles of the Global Village, a maze of exhibitors, stages, and meeting points. There delegates could collect tracts and brochures on gender equality for Third World women, on clean needle programs for drug users, or on prostitution rights in the "Stiletto Lounge," complete with sex toys.

Halfway through the conference, a sex worker show called "Star Whores" drew curious onlookers to the village's main stage. The song-and-dance act aimed straight at Bush, the "evil emperor," for barring AIDS money from groups that do not explicitly oppose prostitution. "Star Whores say no to the Imperial prostitution pledge," flashed commentary on an accompanying TV screen. "The battle rages, but the fun doesn't stop."

Their idea of fun: At one point two dancers in striped bikini-style outfits ripped open condom packets with their teeth, blew up the condoms into balloons, and tossed them out to the audience. Then they lay down on stage to simulate having intercourse.

Away from the Village, the heft of the conference was in dozens of daily staid sessions on science and policy. Even so, at many policy sessions the delegates meandered back to blaming the Bush administration's "moralistic" policies, such as teaching sexual abstinence and faithfulness in the president's $15 billion AIDS initiative. Grant writers for the groups they represent aren't ashamed to seek funding under such programs, but there's no love lost when among peers. In one session on prevention, a representative of billionaire George Soros' philanthropic Open Society Institute said such policies fit into a wider sexual agenda to stifle "everything except sex within marriage."

Conference organizers gave cursory slots for faith-based groups and religious leaders, but even they largely dissolved into the meeting's larger ethos. On one inter-religion panel, a South African HIV-positive Anglican priest complained about the "ABC" prevention approach, which stresses Abstaining, Being faithful, and Condom use, in that order. For churches, "it's a very big 'A' because it's abstinence and there's no sex going on, thank God, (and) a small 'B,'" said Rev. Johannes Heath. "'C' is down there very small."

In the end, the organizers were so intent to be inclusive, they even pressed the restrooms into service. Door signs read, "A gender-neutral washroom is also located in the northwest corner. Visitors are encouraged to use the washroom best reflecting their sense of identity and comfort." But if there was something for everyone, the dreaded social conservative seemed strangely left out.

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