Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders & AIDS

AIDS activists, like myself, need more from the Democrats.


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The Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, made some missteps last week that left many in the LGBT community upset. At the heart of the anger was one issue: AIDS.

During the height of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S., AIDS was one of my beats as a reporter. I was given coverage of the (initially) seemingly insignificant disease first called GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) as a newbie reporter. I became the only woman in the country writing about the disease in the mainstream media for some years. As a reporter for a daily newspaper as well as being the AIDS columnist for SPIN magazine, I covered myriad stories about the epidemic, from breaking news about AZT and other treatments, to news about outbreaks, to stories about people dying from the disease.

It was a painful time in American history and it was impossible to be an entirely objective reporter. Lines were very blurred in those days because people were dying at a frightening rate. I became an AIDS activist almost immediately, participating in demonstrations when I wasn’t covering them, even being held myself a few times for civil disobedience at die-ins around the country.

It’s difficult to explain to people who weren’t even born yet as many millennials were not, what the decade between the mid '80s to the mid '90s was like. The constant fear that your friends would be next. I lost so many friends in those years, including two of my closest friends, the writers Darrell Yates Rist and Assotto Saint, as well as two other black gay male writer friends who had been members of my Philadelphia gay community since I was a teenager, Joe Beam and Essex Hemphill. Joe was found dead in his apartment. Essex–well, I talked to him on the phone before he died. He had a high fever from a horrifically painful abscess. He was only 38 when he died.

AIDS did not take these men kindly–it took them violently and viciously and well before their time.

But it wasn’t just the deaths of friends–and a whole generation of gay writers–that impacted me. It was also the strangers–the small black community in Belle Glade, FL, that I covered, all of whom had the disease in a rare AIDS cluster. The babies born to AIDS-infected mothers at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, who I held and comforted. Their mothers had given birth and then abandoned their infected babies because life was terrible enough for them. They hoped their babies would be cared for–something they themselves could not do. The small group of black and Latina female sex workers in New York who were infected and had nowhere to go, no one to take care of them, who were crammed into a small one bedroom apartment, trying to care for each other while they died one-by-one. The once-handsome gay men covered in disfiguring Kaposi’s Sarcoma lesions, who were dying in rudimentary hospice care set up within the gay community because otherwise men would literally be dying in the streets. The interviews with people made famous by the disease, like young hemophiliac Ryan White, who was only 18 when he died of AIDS or Dr. Sam Broder, who was Director of the National Cancer Institute and who was at the forefront of therapies for AIDS or two U.S. Surgeons General or so many others whose names have receded into the background as HIV/AIDS has ceased to be a headline and has become–at least in the U.S.–more like a chronic illness that can be managed with medications.

I was there. I was taking notes, writing the stories and winning awards as all I wanted was to raise awareness of what was happening in my own community.

The pain and anger of all that loss will never leave me. I was in San Francisco covering a different story in the mid '80s when I met Cleve Jones, who was starting something called the NAMES Project, now known as the AIDS Quilt. I would see that quilt several years later, displayed at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. and it would take my breath away. Panel after panel after panel of the dead. Our collective dead. 

It was unimaginable.

I will also always remember collapsing in front of the Reagan White House on a blisteringly hot summer day while covering a story on a huge protest. I was taken to one of the ambulances waiting in case there were injuries from altercations with police or there were people like me, collapsing from the intense heat and unrelieved sunshine. Only in my 20s, I was rushed to George Washington University Hospital with a suspected heart attack.

The last scene I remember seeing before I lost consciousness was D.C. police in riot masks wearing long blue gloves to protect them from AIDS, carrying die-in protestors to waiting police vans while other protestors chanted "The whole world is watching" as they had previously chanted, "Say it, say it"–referring to Reagan’s refusal to talk about AIDS.

That’s the back story for what happened last week, in 2016, three decades later, when the two Democrats each lost sight of that history and each praised someone who made life much, much harder for people–my people–who were dying of AIDS. People–my people–with no one to help them but those of us in the then-gay and lesbian community who were living like the world was on fire while people in power, like President Ronald Reagan, did nothing.

At the March 9 Democratic debate in Miami, sponsored by the Latin@ network Univision, a videotape of Bernie Sanders praising Cuban dictator Fidel Castro played. The outrage over Sanders’ inability to reject his praise of Castro caused anger within the Latin@ community. But it should also have caused outrage in our own.

Why? Because no one in the Western Hemisphere has oppressed LGBT people and people with HIV/AIDS like Castro did. The revisionist history of Castro’s forced quarantine of HIV-infected people into sanatorios is that "it saved lives." But decades of people being forcibly tested for HIV and placed in quarantine is a double-edged sword. Do we praise a dictator for excising a huge segment of the population from their friends and family and imprisoning them, or do we say, "Well, lives were saved."

There are burdens to a free society, of course. Cuba and New York City–the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S.–have roughly the same population, just under 9 million. NYC lost more than 75,000 people to AIDS over three decades while Cuba alleges they only lost about 3,000 outside the quarantine.

But those numbers present a false equivalency, since PWAs were taken off the streets and kept in quarantine for decades in Cuba. And while it’s easy to say fascism breeds order, it’s still fascism.

Those praising Cuba on AIDS neglect to note how they established quarantine: through mandatory testing which the U.S. and other democracies do not have, through mandatory notifications, which U.S. privacy laws like HIPPA would disallow, and through, well, the government coming and taking you away if you tested positive. I have friends who are HIV+ yet their longtime partners are not. If those men had been living in Cuba, they would have been forcibly removed from their homes and taken away from their partners to live out their lives in quarantine.

It’s not the rosy picture Sanders nor other revisionists wish to depict.

In addition, while Havana has a thriving LGBT community at present, under Fidel Castro, LGBT people were routinely discriminated against and there are still no protections for LGBT people in education, housing or public accommodations. Marriage is defined by the Cuban Constitution as between one man and one woman and all efforts to change that have been failed in parliament. Civil unions are also banned. The one positive is that for trans persons who pass the rigorous three-year testing process, sex reassignment surgery is paid for by the national health service.

Sanders’ embrace of Castro got little attention in the LGBT community–though it should have. Mostly it was Latin@s, particularly those in Miami where a third of Miaimians are of Cuban descent, who were upset by Sanders.

Latin Post reported that three prominent Miamians–former U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States Luis Lauredo, former Southeast Region Representative to the U.S. Department of Labor Millie Herrera and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Western Hemisphere Dr. Frank Mora–all demanded that Sanders "disavow his apparent support of Castro."

Their statement was succinct: "Fidel Castro is responsible for some of the greatest human rights abuses Hispanics in the Western Hemisphere have faced, and his harsh dictatorial rule sent hundreds of thousands of Cubans fleeing to this country."

The statement goes on to excoriate Sanders for standing by his support of Castro when questioned during the Univision debate. Other articles on the sites of Salon, The Hill, MSNBC and others all noted how problematic Sanders’ stance was.

The trouble for Clinton was just as bad, but got considerably more media attention. Clinton, attending the funeral for former First Lady Nancy Reagan on March 11, made a stunning gaffe when talking with reporters.

Clinton said the Reagans–Nancy and the late president–had "opened the national conversation on AIDS."

As I have detailed above, nothing could have been further from the truth. President Reagan’s refusal to address the AIDS epidemic as the public health crisis it was allowed many more people to become infected and die than would have, had there been federal intervention in the early days of the epidemic, which were under Reagan’s presidency. (GRID was first identified in 1981 and the mid-80s saw the explosion of AIDS and its spread outside the gay male community.)

In fact, Nancy Reagan, whose close friend Rock Hudson was the first celebrity to come out as having AIDS, had asked her husband to address the epidemic.

The President had refused.

For her part, Nancy Reagan had also made comments years earlier about Gay Pride marches, wondering what any lesbians or gay men had to be proud of.

So while Hillary Clinton was at Nancy Reagan’s funeral with Michelle Obama, Rosalyn Carter and Laura Bush, social media was exploding with anger over her comments.

"While I respect her advocacy on issues like stem cell & Parkinson’s research, Nancy Reagan was, sadly, no hero in the fight against HIV/AIDS," said Chad Griffin, the head of the largest LGBT rights group in the country, Human Rights Campaign.

Rightly so. Clinton is no stranger to HIV/AIDS causes and although she was first lady of Arkansas during the Reagan years, she was one of the earliest politicians involved in AIDS-related concerns. In addition, the Clinton Foundation has had AIDS outreach as one of their primary foci since its inception in 2001 and former Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration and former AIDS czar and out lesbian Donna Shalala is CEO of the Clinton Foundation.

The Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI) has helped over 8 million people living with HIV/AIDS obtain medication. CHAI strives to make treatment for HIV/AIDS more affordable and to implement large-scale integrated care, treatment and prevention programs. Its activities have included AIDS care and treatment in Africa, including the brokering of drug distribution agreements. Over the course of the past year, CHAI has expanded its partner countries and members of the Procurement Consortium to over 70 including 22 governments, who are now able to purchase AIDS medicines and diagnostic equipment at CHAI's reduced prices.

All of which made Hillary Clinton’s mistake about the Reagans all the more glaring.

Apparently in her rush to find something nice to say about the Reagans as she entered the funeral, Clinton pulled the exact wrong thing out of the air. Within hours a hashtag #HistoryByHillary was up on Twitter, filled with comments about her lapse in historical memory.

The good news–and I prefer to have politicians learn from their mistakes rather than entrench themselves in those errors–is that Clinton apologized immediately and in detail. She tweeted out an apology, which she followed with some more extended mea culpas, including a list of her own work on HIV/AIDS awareness and concerns.

Michael Kaplan, president and CEO of AIDS United, a DC-based advocacy organization, told Mother Jones magazine, "There's no question that under the Reagan administration there was a complete failure to deal with this issue." But, Kaplan said, "people get swept away in the moment. [Hillary’s] there at a fellow first lady’s funeral, and grasping for things to say."

Kaplan added, "Clinton learns and moves forward."

Clinton wrote a column for Medium on Saturday in which she not only apologized more broadly, but laid out a plan for the future, since a study from just ten days ago showed HIV infection is on the rise again in our community, particularly among Latino and black gay and bi men.

Clinton wrote, "I made a mistake, plain and simple." The Democratic frontrunner also wrote, "Yesterday, at Nancy Reagan’s funeral, I said something inaccurate when speaking about the Reagans’ record on HIV and AIDS. Since then, I’ve heard from countless people who were devastated by the loss of friends and loved ones, and hurt and disappointed by what I said. As someone who has also lost friends and loved ones to AIDS, I understand why."

Clinton goes on to explain how many people are still coping with HIV/AIDS today. Activists, Clinton wrote, "organized and marched, held die-ins on the steps of city halls and vigils in the streets. Their courage–and their refusal to accept silence as the status quo–saved lives."

Presidential candidates are bound to make mistakes–Clinton and Sanders have been engaged in a grueling schedule that people half their ages would have difficulty maintaining. But there is little room for errors–immediate or historical–in the kind of campaign that’s going on this year.

In the end, the response to these errors in speaking and in the case of Sanders, judgment, illumines a major distinction between the two candidates that voters should be considering. Throughout her campaign Clinton has apologized–for past mistakes, like her support of the 1994 Crime Bill (though she was FLOTUS, not an office holder) and her vote for the Iraq War and now for this mistake about the Reagans. Sanders remains intransigent: On his vote to support the 1994 Crime Bill, on his five votes against gun control and now, on his support for a dictator known to have done major harm to all citizens of Cuba, but specifically to dissidents, women who were pushed into forced labor and PWAs and LGBT people.

I would prefer politicians not make errors in judgment or even errors in speaking. But if they are going to make such errors, acknowledging them and moving forward is essential to statesmanship–or stateswomanship.

The Reagan years were dark years for this country–for the economy, for covert wars, for LGBT people. But for my community, the refusal to address a public health crisis that was killing people daily was an outrage I will never forgive nor forget.

Last week both Clinton and Sanders re-opened that wound. One tried to mitigate the pain she caused, the other did not. LGBT lives matter. And no candidate gets to dismiss our issues when it comes to our lives.

 


Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer and the author and editor of nearly 30 books. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 SPJ Award for Enterprise Reporting in May 2014. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and A Room of Her Own, senior politics reporter and contributing editor for Curve magazine, contributing editor for Lambda Literary Review and a columnist for San Francisco Bay Area Reporter. Her reporting and commentary have appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Baltimore Sun, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Nation, Ms Magazine and Slate. Her book, Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic won the Lambda Literary Award, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for cultural & historical fiction. Her new novel, Ordinary Mayhem, won the IPPY Award for fiction on May 1, 2015. Her book Erasure: Silencing Lesbians and her next novel, Sleep So Deep, will both be published in 2016. @VABVOX

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