When I received the email stating I had received a full scholarship to attend the 25th Harm Reduction International Conference in Montreal, Canada, to say I was excited is an understatement. I was overcome with emotions, not so much so that I received the scholarship, but more because it was an opportunity to make good on a promise I made to my dearly departed big sister, #SharmusOutlaw. During many of our nightly talks toward the end of her life, she made it clear how she believed in me and the work I have done in the HIV movement as a woman of trans experience also of African descent. She also told me of what she saw happening through me as I continued to fight for the rights of trans PLHIV engaged in sex work. Although my heart was breaking at the knowledge that she would transition to eternal slumber, I promised her that I would continue her legacy and would always #SayHerName.
Along with the excitement was the extreme worry that I would not be able to show her work justice through my own words because Sharmus was the most personable, most passionate, and most dedicated in her advocacy. She literally inspired an entire community because she fought until she physically couldn't anymore. I didn't know if I had that whatever it was that she saw in me, but I was happy to attend nonetheless. I sat on the panel with some very intelligent and passionate sex workers who spoke of harm reduction methods and truly I was happy to sit alongside of them with the feeling that Sharmus was nearby comforting my nerves as I hoped I could continue through the panel. It was at this panel that I began to question where were the other trans women. I had assumed that a panel with a trans person sitting on it would surely attract trans people attending the conference.
I quickly realized that what I was questioning was really a reality. I was in another country feeling all alone because not only were there no other trans people, but up until that point in the conference, I hadn't seen any other Americans except one. I sat through the opening plenary and listened to Monique Tula speak about a multitude of issues in America at the intersection of race, education, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and seropositive status. I was literally floored and felt inspired at having the opportunity to hear someone speak with the same passion and grit as I. We continued to see each other throughout the conference and it was good to have her around checking in on me. As for the organizers, I don't understand how one could plan an entire four-day conference around harm reduction and not think to have a fair representation of trans women in attendance. The entire thing made me feel extremely fetishized and sexualized. I was so over the stares from men on the street. I understood at that point that a woman of African descent who embraces her heritage, not only in her appearance but also her disposition, was a rarity in Montreal. I literally broke up conversations happening on the street as I walked from my hotel to the conference site, feeling uncomfortable but steady in my stride.
The streets, as well as the conference itself, were filled with white people. And honestly, wherever there are A LOT of white folks, I tend to get nervous. Instead of speaking with the minorities they serve, I was being introduced to service providers who look absolutely nothing like me. How was I to feel about attending a harm reduction conference but the attendees couldn't understand intersectionality because of privilege? I seriously ask how was this shit not harmful? Still as in everything, there were moments to stop and appreciate the journey. The prophetic words coming from Sharmus every night about my destiny in the sex worker rights movement had materialized. I miss you so much everyday. I love you my sister always and forever!