I just attended USCHA 2021 (United States Conference on HIV and AIDS). I really enjoy these conferences, there's so much to learn and experience. This year, due to Covid, USCHA was virtual. I'm starting to get used to these virtual conferences, but I don't want to. I miss seeing everyone and having that full conference experience that so many of us know and love. So I was so thrilled to see that NMAC tried to make the virtual platform as recognizable to the old style conferences of our past. When you first came onto the platform the first page on your screen was of a hotel lobby, it looked just like a conference like we used to have, they even had lounges, a help desk, a chat room, and even a photo booth to take your picture with a conference frame. That ever so slight familiarity seemed oddly comforting to me and in my opinion improved my overall experience.
My first stop in the conference was the opening plenary which was kicked off by Admiral Rachel Levine (the first openly transgender woman appointed to a Senate-confirmed federal office, and highest ranking woman of transgender experience in the US military or American government). We also heard from great speakers like Naina Khanna, Cecilia Chung, Mark Misrok and the chair of PACHA, but the big highlight was of course Dr. Anthony Fauci who gave us a 40-year update with a stimulating presentation. I just personally find that man to be amazing lol. And the plenary closed with NMAC presentation of its first lifetime achievement award awarded to Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.
Next I went to the poster exhibit, but it wasn't a very long walk to the button lol. I wanted to see the poster about Using Virtual Platforms to Promote Mental Health. I thought this would be great because I deal with mental health issues myself, and I do a lot of social media advocacy work, but that's not the virtual platforms that it was talking about. It was actually talking about telemed services in a medical setting to address a client's mental health needs (I guess that makes more sense lol). It addressed how Covid had amplified the need for telemed and other virtual platforms to be able to continue serving their clients and remain at work themselves. They spoke about strategies taken for safety, how well they were able to use telemed and how they overcame obstacles. They also spoke about possible long term applications of telemed long after this pandemic is over. To be honest, I'm not sure how I feel about that, it's convenient for sure, especially in the south where we have very few public transportation options, and being able to see the doctor even on screen is better than not at all, but still, there's simply no substitute for face-to-face human connection and interaction, and I hope we never try to find a way to replace that.
Then I attended the workshop called 40 Years of HIV Inequities at Home and Abroad. This was a really interesting but also sad presentation. The history of HIV/AIDS has been fraught with inequities all over the world, among all marginalized communities: among women, among people of color, among the transgender community, but most of all among the poor, but only by knowing this history can we be prepared to analyze its causes, prevent its recurrence and choose to do better.
This concluded the first day of the conference for me, it was an exciting day and I couldn't wait for the next day to come. But that doesn't mean I got a good night's sleep lol, I was up all night writing about it while it was still fresh, but I was still bushy-tailed and ready for another day come morning lol.
The next day was Friday and the last day of the conference. I joined the workshop called HIV CURE: Hot Topics in HIV Cure Research, because what's more exciting than hearing about a cure and just how far the scientists have gotten on the subject. They spoke about reservoirs, viral rebound, reduction of reservoirs, community engagement, and even inactivation and eradication of the virus. They talked about a woman whose immune system has eradicated the virus completely from her body. I know it doesn't mean that much for the rest of us yet -- but it's really exciting news. I truly believe we're getting closer y'all, we've already got a monthly injection treatment option and from everything I'm hearing, I'm extremely hopeful and excited for what the future may hold for an HIV cure.
I then attended a workshop about Covid-19 and its impact on southern HIV service organizations where they told us about the challenges of operating during the pandemic. They had to address safety concerns, staff vaccinations, and even compassion fatigue. The Deep South has been disproportionately affected by both pandemics: HIV and Covid-19, but the strain of Covid is hindering critically needed services for HIV, some clinics are even closing their doors and this should simply not be allowed to happen.
I was supposed to attend a session on the role of religion in ending stigma called Blessings and Barriers: Using Storytelling to Challenge Traditional Narratives about HIV, Sexuality, and Faith. I wasn't able to stay though, I don't know what I was thinking lol. The title sounded great, Using Storytelling to Challenge Traditional Narratives about HIV, Sexuality and Faith; if you take off the Faith part, you've got my interest lol, but there was a lot more discussion about religion than I felt comfortable with -- religion is a trauma for me and is triggering for bad feelings and hurtful memories, so I left and went to another workshop, and that's ok, education should never be traumatizing, and don't ever apologize for taking care of your own well-being.
Then I attended another major interest, It's About Time: HIV Research Just for Transgender Women. This interested me because there's just not enough transgender inclusion in research studies, particularly transgender women, and even more particularly transgender women of color. Understanding the importance of gender-inclusion in HIV prevention and treatment strategies is vital because globally, women of transgender experience encounter a 49-fold increased chance of contracting HIV as compared to cisgender adults of reproductive age. Transgender women experience high rates of discrimination and ignorance even in healthcare settings -- and that must change.
And finally, I ended the conference by attending the workshop called This is Our Story: HIV Impact and Opportunities in the Rural South, but this time I didn't attend as a participant, I attended as a speaker on the panel. I was nervous, though I had little reason to be; most of my speaking was pre-recorded. All I really had to do was listen and be there if a question should come my way, and I was happy to do so. But during my portion of the speaking I spoke about the overwhelming effects of religion on southern culture and thus on HIV education and care in the south, but also offered that I do see hope for change in the stigma that is pervasive in southern conservative evangelicalism. I added that the wheels may turn very slowly in the south, but I can see them turn.
So that's another USCHA in the books!! I'll be so happy when we can finally attend another in-person conference together, to walk the halls and see friends that you know and meet new friends that you never knew before. There's just no replacing the live experience; it's a wonderful opportunity to build your network -- and truth be known, my network is the secret to my strength and success as an advocate. I know I would be nothing without all the amazing people who love and support me and are always there when I need them. But as far as virtual conferences go, NMAC really did an amazing job and I can't wait to see what they do next year (so you can go ahead and pre-approve my application NMAC lol, cause I definitely want to come next year)!!