AIDS2018? AIDS2020? AIDS2022?
What If They Held a Conference and Nobody Came?
by Hank Trout

By now, everyone reading this knows that, due to concerns over the coronavirus, AIDS2020, the biannual conference of the International AIDS Society, scheduled for July 6-10, 2020, in San Francisco and Oakland, California, has morphed into “AIDS2020: Virtual.” Larkin Callaghan, Director of Strategic Research Communications and Partnerships at the UCSF AIDS Research Institute, emailed potential participants with the news of the change from an in-person gathering to a virtual conference. “While this decision is undoubtedly disappointing for so many of us,” she wrote, “we remain committed to ensuring it is a landmark global gathering——one of the first to attempt such extensive international virtual participation.”

Disappointing for all, no doubt. For me, deeply disappointing indeed.

In 2016, hoping to attend my first AIDS conference, I applied for a scholarship to attend AIDS2016 in Durban, South Africa. Since I was living on Social Security Disability Insurance at the time, a scholarship was the only way I could attend the conference. My application was denied and I was financially unable to attend.

Then, throughout 2017, the first full year that I was on the writing staff of A&U, we planned for me to attend AIDS2018 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, as part of the team covering the conference. I was excited beyond description about attending. I looked upon it as the first real workout for my journalistic muscles, attending and writing about as many of the scientific presentations as I could get to. I was also especially interested in the arts and culture presentations, including ATLAS2018, a vast multimedia project, put together by Les Enfants Terrible, the brainchild of Erwin Kokkelkoren and Bert Oele [A&U, July 2018]. Along with four other long-term survivors in San Francisco, I had participated in a round-table discussion of the early days of the pandemic that Erwin and Bert filmed (https://vimeo.com/279408706). So I was eager to see the film and the other components of the ATLAS2018 presentation, as well as the other arts and culture projects at the conference.

Another reason for my excitement was——Amsterdam! In 1998, I spent ten days in Amsterdam as part of a nearly month-long trip to London, Berlin, and Amsterdam. I fell in love with the city, its history and culture. From the Anne Frank House to the water taxis on the canals, from the Van Gogh Museum to Rembrandtpark, from the lovely old cobblestone bridges over the canals to the “coffee houses” and its bourgeoning nightlife, what’s not to love about Amsterdam?! I’ve dreamed of returning to Amsterdam ever since I boarded the plane to leave that incredible city.

As luck would have it, in October 2017 I fell down the steps in our apartment and fractured my pelvis and caused an inoperable compression fracture at the base of my spine. In March 2018, after very little progress with physical therapy, I was confined to a wheelchair, still suffering indescribable pain in my back and pelvis. Thus, my health——and the terrible inconvenience of traveling with a wheelchair——prevented me from attending AIDS2018. Saying I was severely disappointed and depressed doesn’t come even close to what I felt.

So last year, when the IAS announced that San Francisco and Oakland would host AIDS2020, I was truly elated! Finally! I would get to attend the conference and write about it, in my own backyard, so to speak——to meet other writers and activists in the fight against AIDS, to represent the magazine I am so proud of, and maybe even to do a reading of some of my work as part of the arts presentations. It also just felt right that the conference was returning to one of the early epicenters of the pandemic, a move that Representative Barbara Lee [A&U, October 2012] and Speaker Nancy Pelosi have been lobbying for over many years. Despite the disgruntled naysayers, AIDS2020 promised to be a rousing success, both for all the IAS attendees and for me personally.

And then the coronavirus came along.
The irony of an international conference about a virus being derailed by another virus does not escape me.

While I commend the IAS for taking precautions to protect attendees from the virus, I feel deep-in-the-gut disappointment that the conference will not happen as planned. I have no idea how the logistics of involving tens of thousands of people in a “virtual conference” will work (that is way above my pay grade!), and I cannot imagine that the “virtual conference” will be as satisfying as an in-person gathering. In Ms. Callaghan’s email, she writes, “We are cautiously optimistic that some local activities and events will still be able to happen, both scientific gatherings as well as those related to community, our equity pledge, and arts and culture.” I genuinely hope so.

But if not, there’s always AIDS2022, right?

Unless, of course, there isn’t.


Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.