Amid a chorus of regulations and voices we all are inevitably drawn into a journey which we learn new skills and begin our long path towards self-realization. My own such experience can be found within the Campaign to End AIDS’s Youth Action Institute (Y.A.I). Originally beginning as a conference but gradually moving towards activism bootcamp101, the Y.A.I has been teaching young people the critical skills they need in order to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic for half-a-decade with each year being more fabulous than the last.
This being said I can honestly say that this year’s Institute not only met but surpassed previous Institutes. With a heavy focus on bringing practical skills towards raising money for HIV prevention and treatment programs Y.A.I 2012 brought all of its energy and commitment towards Transgender liberation; supporters in drag demonstrating in front of D.C mayor’s office, listening to the heartbreaking struggles of Transgender people of color, and demanding more funds to be allocated to Queer support programs are all part of a day’s work for these dedicated warriors.
So how did I get caught up in this, you ask? Well, for that we shall have to delve back in time to a time when I knew nothing about the War on AIDS and the masses of American workers took to the streets to Occupy…
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Most unbelievable events, like a brush fire behind a redneck’s trailer, or the Arcadia Free Territory, arise spontaneously. This much has usually been true. So it is no surprise when my own recent foray into such “reindeer games” came from similar abstract sources.
To make a long story quick I can say that I first cut my activist teeth at my local Occupy encampment. There I studied the non-violent art of war and became enthused with the never ending struggle against corporate domination. At the end of my two month stay, rarely leaving the makeshift commune, I had been inspired and so penned an introductory guide to activism. The target audience was youth.
With my nefarious need, however, to ensure that every sentence and every period is impeccably placed I dove into the online realm to search for competent editors. I eventually found such an editor in the form of a veteran AIDS activist. She read over my report and gave suggestions to the transcript’s improvement. After a small amount of links, and a large amount of caffeine, I had rewritten the paper to reflect a healthy dose of nineties radicalism against the AIDS menace (all while retaining the original flavor).
As time developed and our friendship grew tighter she suggested that we meet in person. This meeting would be during the upcoming Youth Action Institute. Though she and I would never actually meet, due to circumstances beyond either of ours control, she helped me raise money and send me on my way. Fast forwarding to the present we can see that her faith in me to better my skills wasn’t misplaced: I overcame my personal fears, flew, and made my way towards Washington D.C.
As with any great journey into the unknown the hero leaves early. In Tolkeinian fantasy it is to evade Ringwraiths, in Maine it is to beat traffic and to ensure you arrive to your plane on time (though I often find myself wishing I could avoid Ringwraiths instead; how well, I suppose the police will have to be decent substitutes). So with receiving little sleep the night before I leapt into the wee hours of the morning with much enthusiasm (or at least as much enthusiasm one can have at 3am).
Bathing, packing and all were done in quick enough order to where my father and I were out the door in a jiffy. Making our way out to what passes for the big city in Maine, the Portland International Jetport wafted into like the Maid of the Mist; subtle yet sudden and we were upon her.
Exiting the car with my ginormous backpack on my shoulders my father saw me in to ensure that everything went well (though since neither of us had traveled before by plane it was more of a familial support sentiment). I managed to fumble my way through the American Airways line and after little fuss, though total freak-out, I managed to secure a boarding pass.
Rushing towards security I quickly passed through the gauntlet there with ease. Next came the task of finding my gate, which again, I accomplished with little fuss (what a whiz kid I am, right?). I waited patiently and my flight departure came upon me… and nothing happened. As was my luck the plane was delayed for “minor door repairs.” So all that crippling paranoia about missing my flight, yup, that’s right, it was pointless since I was held up for nearly ninety minutes.
Regardless the wait was worth it for a first time flier like me. By the time I was in my seat and the plane sped up for take-off I was grinning like a lunatic. The thrill of watching the clouds roll underneath the wings and the visage of the buildings far below made my mind squeal with delight; the intensity of an event experienced for the first time.
Fast-forwarding a couple hours one would find me landing in Ronald Reagan National Airport. Now my mission was to pry my mind away from flying and to finding my contacts. The funny thing about this though was that, before leaving in the morning, I had seen a map of the airport and knew where the group was to assemble. This, however, didn’t stop me from being turned around and having to ask for directions several times (first from an assistant at an information desk and another time from a security guard).
I always find a way to persevere through. Like the genius I am I, through sheer brilliance, found the hook-up terminal. Once there I met the others and from there we had a short lunch and then boogied on over, via the Metro and walking, to the youth hostel where I would have time to talk with Larry Bryant (lead organizer) as well as the other staff members who tirelessly worked to ensure that the Y.A.I went off without a hitch.
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The first scheduled event for the day took place in the evening while everyone was enjoying a nice pasta dinner. During this event Larry Bryant was discussing how he became involved in HIV/AIDS activism and threw more of his life’s purpose behind the cause. As he talked I couldn’t help but become enamored by what he had accomplished since the day he had been infected with HIV as a youth. His fall into despair and then heroic climb back into society as a contributing member should be an example for all dispossessed young people.
While shoving down healthy amounts of spaghetti though I was also eyeing the other participants (something which would have been easier without my nose bleeding, but I digress). The group seemed to be a diverse one. With people coming from Germany, Haiti, California, Illinois, and beyond the gathering truly was an international one. Quick glances revealed I, at twenty years old, was the youngest of the group so as to how accurate the “youth” portion of the Y.A.I is up to debate. Still with most details arranged, the members mobilized, and a burning desire for action, the Institute appeared to be on the verge of another awesome year.
The second day of the Y.A.I was the first real day, the day which everyone would be active from early in the morning to late at night. I woke up perhaps around 6:30am in a groggy daze resulting from an uneven sleep on an uncomfortable bed. Knowing that breakfast was soon and that there was hardly enough time to rest any more completely I roused myself from the upper bunk and walked down stairs to the second floor cafeteria to have partially filling breakfast consisting of a couple of muffins and orange juice.
More importantly I had a short but effective series of talks with some of the other participants and organizers. During these short exchanges I found myself learning slightly more about both the people I would be staying with for some time as well as my own possible future.
Thankfully such idleness doesn’t last forever. In short order the group was assembled and we headed on our first excursion of the day. Our destination was the DC office of Advocates for Youth a HIV/AIDS lobbying organization which promotes bills to help individuals living with HIV and AIDS as well as youth populations.
While listening to our host speak on I learned a few fact which seem criminal to not repeat for your benefit…
- Better late than never, in 2010 the United States government developed a strategy on how to fight HIV/AIDS. It’s goal was provide everyone with medicine when new infections occur regardless of the person’s income, age, disability, race, sex, sexual orientation gender identity, or class.
- Currently there exists all the tools to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic yet all that activists’ need is funding and the organization to carry the struggle to its conclusion.
- The Campaign to End AIDS goal is to decrease new infections by 25% by 2015.
- Over 35,000 young people (13-24) live with HIV in the U.S
- From 2006-09 youth were the only demographic to show an increase in HIV infections.
- According to recent studies only 84% (87% for people of color) of young people remember any mention of HIV education while in school.
The information listed above was what I learned in a brief lecture. After that shocking deluge we continued to screen a few Youtube movies that Advocates made which assaulted Abstinence based HIV prevention. Finishing off the visit the group split off into smaller sects to brainstorm what young people need in order to combat the HIV epidemic.
Leaving the sleek office of Advocates for Youth we left to our next stop: Housing Works. There we spent the remainder of our day immersed in more presentations. First in the lineup was a lively dissertation by a Transgender Latino on why the next Y.A.I should be held in Puerto Rico. Next up was a talk on methods of reaching out to sympathetic organizations in preparation to build a coalition. Thirdly was the chairperson for the Student Global AIDS Coalition. This particular presentation was fascinating for this was when I learned about the Trans-Pacific Partnership; a NAFTA like trade deal designed for the Pacific rim which, if passed, would bar all generic HIV drugs from being sold within the undersigned countries, an event which would spell the end for untold numbers of workers.
Breaking for a healthy lunch of sandwiches, which I nibbled on here and there, we went straight back into the meat of our schedule with the lead reporter for The Fightback News explaining effective ways to use social media when conducting a campaign. After this came a divulge of info containing how corporations are presently proposing a “second Set of Rules” for the internet which, if passed, would regulate all non-funded websites to load at substantially slower rates than those backed with large sums of money. Had the speaker from the Praxis Project never spoken on this I would never have known such a nefarious plan was in the making.
Feeling that enough had been forced into our minds for the day, and the fact that it was already approaching evening; we left our large meeting room and shot back to the Hostel where we crashed for the night. For me this day, though not providing me with concrete steps on how to conduct what I want to undertake, did initiate in me new knowledge and freshly baked cookies of struggle. Much may have been accepted into my mind but I had never before been so sure of the need for resistance than I was then.
Day three rolled in and once again I was off to some exotic location. First on the agenda was a trip to the Transgender Health Empowerment Center. As the name implies the center serves the transgender community. Though they serve the wider Queer community they have a special emphasis on Transgender and Transsexual health with assisting young men and women in making transitions to who they feel they are on the inside; this can mean something as simple as helping them change their sex on the driver’s license to finding a trusted doctor.
The center had been standing for several years and survived on a combination of government grants and private donors. They offer limited housing for homeless Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender youth and adults. With special programs focused on individuals living with HIV/AIDS the volunteers there informed us of how the center usually operates at full capacity. However, the center also assists the downtrodden in gaining employment as well as furthering their education; in fact, the guide which spoke with us told how she was once a homeless youth who attended the center’s programs.
Leaving the center for the next area of interests we sped towards Covenant House.
Serving the homeless since 1972 the Covenant House project consists of international series of homes which serve whoever seek asylum from the cold. Touring their DC branch my group saw their day care facility, lunch room, math and writing rooms, and computer lab before finishing up via a Q&A session.
To quickly outline some of what I learned: Though Covenant House is based on a religious (Catholic) platform there is no preaching towards the youth who reside within, in HIV/AIDS prevention they espouse an Abstinence based program (but direct youth towards organizations which use condom based prevention), and finally, though Catholic in nature they are progressive in the welcoming of the Queer community; they do not kick out gay, lesbian, and Bisexual members and they have a gender neutral bathroom for their Transgender guests.
After a lively discussion we departed Covenant House and returned back to the Hostel where after a brief respite the group was launched into a brainstorming session on what we should do for our upcoming action. As with each Youth Action Institute each year every group is required to perform a direct action that is to be the start of a local campaign.
This process, as it was in other events I attended, was a sluggish microcosm of any worthwhile action. The group gathered, bounced ideas off of one another, debated and argued, and finally, after a painful back-and-forth settled on three potential issues to center our action around.
The first potential issues to endorse was protesting the mayor to increase funding for Transgender specific issues, the second was pressuring the mayor to support the “Robin hood Tax,” while the last was a proposal to create tougher laws to stop sex trafficking. While all of the issues were great topics to organize around only one could be chosen. To select one a vote was taken among the three. A tie resulted. To break the tie to two who had more than the third were given a second vote with the winner of this second vote being the lucky topic. Suffice to say that in the end the topic we selected was pressuring the mayor to increase funding for the Transgender community.
By this time I was exhausted yet more was to be done. Though we had our issue we still needed our action, we needed teams to promote and develop our intent. Breaking off into several teams-Media, Outreach and Logistics- I volunteered for Media. Whipping up a few slogans as well as some methods on promotion each team did their part before leaving for the night.
It was a start and though it wasn’t likely to be revolutionary it was far more than many others could say. In less than a couple days a group of strangers had come together and co-developed an idea and worked to make this idea a reality. It seemed that the Y.A.I promise of being a “boot camp” was vividly true.
Meeting in one of the Hostel rooms we had rented out for the week our morning meeting was more laid back than usual (with everyone lounging on beds and whatnot). With our action but a single day away there was much to do in a short time. Planning, deciding what to do and how to do it, as well as promotion was all needed. In other words: a day stuffed full of non-stop activity. I couldn’t wait.
The session proceeded smoothly. The group decided on demonstrating outside of the Wilson Building. To add some spice to our punch a cardboard cutout would be built in which participants would place their heads and see themselves as a Transgender person. Several volunteers were also slated to dress up as the opposite sex’s “proper attire” so as to add some slightly hyperbolic awareness for the Transgender community. Being militant I agreed to be one of the cross-dressers.
Moving on to the activities of the day, however, much was still to be done. Attached to the media team I helped with online promotion. For this I created a Change.org petition urging Mayor Vincent Gray to fund Transgender causes. Later in the night I would also create half-a-dozen twitter slogans for use. In addition to T-shirt making, scouting the demonstration area, and purchasing the supplies and making up hundreds of handouts and fliers, everyone had their hands full.
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Still, though everyone, myself included, were lost in the maelstrom of activism, this isn’t to say that we didn’t have downtime here and there to make observations, have fun, and fuck around. Whether it was hiking up the staircase to my seventh floor bed (thanks to the world’s slowest elevator), trying in vain to overcome anxiety, or observing some fun communist graffiti, the time “in-between” tasks was spent well. After all when you are roomed with people from all around the world, the majority of them being gay,-fancy that-you will inevitably have some fascinating talks about culture, life, and the occasional intimate act.
The fifth and final day was hectic, exciting and even somewhat terrifying.
Beginning with me grafting onto my skin my feminine face, makeup and clothes, I could tell from the onset that it would be an onus day. With my ladies shoe brushing against my feet just the walk to the protesting spot was a process in both courage and pain. Perhaps they were too small or perhaps my feet just weren’t cut out for such delicate shoes but regardless by the end of the day my feet were bruised and bloodied.
Arriving at the Wilson building we found a major news personality already waiting for us. A camera man patiently waited while we hastily set up our props and began chanting. Taking hold of a sign I began to pace the length of the sidewalk while shouting powerful slogans of queer defiance. In addition to several of our youth dressing up, others handed out pamphlets and propaganda to the vast masses of passing by tourists and locals.
The police presence was heavy. At its height as many as six police vehicles were present with the officers themselves positioned in strategic locations throughout the demonstration locale. Common sense, along with a persistent rumor, held that the police, in this instance, were here not to contain us but to ensure our safety. In this manner there is an interesting question to be held as to the role of progressive charities-Housing Works-and the law enforcement organs of the bourgeois state. What connection class wise do they have? This question, however, due to time constraints, will have to be answered another time.
The demonstration lasted for close to two hours (though my perception of time was twisted). Our reward was in raising a hefty amount of Transgender awareness. We handed out most of our fliers and pamphlets, dozens of supporters signed our petition, and a news entity captured it all. For but a few days’ work it was a magnificent reap.
Though the direct action was over, and thus the most exciting segment done, this isn’t to say our day was over for in the course of our action we learned that a local DC Transgender support group was meeting and that briefly attending to share our experience from the action would be a sly debrief.
So after a brief stop at the Hostel where the group recharged, changed and packed for the trip we headed off on yet another journey. To this location we traveled into the heart of DC, the real DC; the place where the lumpen elements resided and the average worker struggled to make a living: in other words, the “hood” (as some in my group described it).
After having a short encounter with your typical asshole looking to take advantage of “others” we boogied along to a place called H.I.P.S (Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive). Contrary to the ghetto nature of the outside the interior of hips was clean and fresh, the telltale sign of a professional organization.
We encountered some of the maintainers so after a brief tour we sat down for a discussion. In a sort of quasi interview where we asked them questions about who they served as well as their own life stories we talked about our direct action. The exchange was, in my opinion, the highlight of the entire day (possible the whole week).
Surviving on federal grants the H.I.P.S center provides sex workers with a safe place to relax, talk, get access to condoms and informative safety pamphlets, as well as maybe dream of something beyond their current station. Our guides told us their trials: one of them, a Transgendered woman, spoke of how she started selling herself on the streets when she was just eleven years old. Another told of how in the over 50 years of “working the streets,” she saw innumerable numbers of her friends be murdered to the point where she could fill her apartment door several times over with their photos.
The whole experience was revealing for though I intellectually knew such events happened it is only when you encounter them up close and personal that you gain a real appreciation for the individuals who give their efforts to make this world a better place.
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So that was my time at the Youth Action Institute. Though my return trip was slightly mangled (re: delayed and missed) the extra time I got to spend socializing among the others who also missed their flight (talk about a snafu) was precious time I am glad I was subject to. But all good things come to an end and mine was no different. So the next day I returned to the airport, boarded the plane, and flew home with my new activist wings.