The anniversary of 9/11 is, of course, a time to “remember.” I propose that we also remember two events that once loomed large but vanished utterly when those planes came out of the blue sky to reduce 3,000 lives to ash. I mean the Clinton impeachment and the Florida fiasco.
Before the war on terrorism, our national politics had turned unaccountably bitter and bizarre. An independent prosecutor, backed by what can only be called a conspiracy of Christian and other extreme right-wingers, was hell-bent on taking down a democratically elected, if deeply flawed, president. For committing blowjobs. The media ate it up, but we the people weren’t buying it—oral sex just ain’t treason. After this foiled coup came the 2000 presidential election, when the Supreme Court—its robed arm sweeping both the popular vote and the Constitution itself into the trash—anointed its own ideological heir. Born-again Bush was in. The radical right’s tanks might as well have been rolling on the Capitol. All this we forgot on 9/11.
This summer, the HIV community learned that a business suit is a better disguise for fundamentalism than any burqua. On August 19, a front-page Washington Post story, “HHS Studies Funding of AIDS Groups,” reported that 12 congressional Republicans—led by Mark Souder, an Indiana congressmember who describes himself as "most defined by the fact that I’m an evangelical Christian"—ordered Health and Human Services (HHS) to investigate, for alleged misuse of federal funds, 12 AIDS service organizations (ASOs). The community’s finest, including the National Association of People With AIDS (NAPWA), Gay Men's Health Crisis, Treatment Action Group and Project Inform, had dared to offend the Bible-thumping politburo.
At Barcelona’s International AIDS Conference last July, some ASO advocates had taken part in a rowdy, rude, entirely routine demo that drowned out HHS head Tommy Thompson’s speech [see “Worlds Collide,”]. Why should the government pay to have its high-ups humiliated? the 12 reps demanded. The letter went on to protest what they claimed was the confab’s anti-religious tone, asserting (falsely) that the Pope had been uninvited; it closed with p.c. rhetoric to melt a soccer mom’s heart: “Unless [the conference] can guarantee freedom of speech to its U.S. representatives and discontinues its discrimination against those of religious faith,” future confab funds should be diverted directly to the most needy—people with HIV. Of this Orwellian opus, the Post penned, "At best, [advocates] believe the inquiry threatens the role of protest in AIDS policymaking; at worst, they fear it might threaten their budgets."
Thompson, to his credit, had met with the whistle-blowers right after the demo to discuss their issues: "Support safer-sex and needle-exchange prevention programs, fully fund AIDS Drug Assistance Programs, donate $2.5 billion to the Global AIDS Fund," as the (federally funded?!?) flier read. Several participants to whom POZ spoke said that Thompson, although understandably annoyed, seemed sincerely puzzled by the bad press, asking, "Why did you wait until now to raise these concerns?" The community, of course, had not waited, but repeated requests for meetings with Thompson were reportedly spurned by HHS underlings. Thompson left Barcelona promising one.
Instead, in rapid, unprecedented succession: An openly gay AIDS czar who broke with Bush’s abstinence-only line is dumped [see "Two-Timin’ Man,"]. A new CDC chief’s first act is to unleash investigators on San Francisco’s Stop AIDS Project, whose 18-year record of prevention by and for homos includes CDC-funded workshops that meet local standards but not Mark (thou shalt not promote homosexuality) Souder’s [see "New Head, Same Hydra,"]. And the entire AIDS establishment is put on notice to choose between saving lives and speaking truth to power, as if these aren’t one and the same.
At presstime, the ASOs were in no-comment, conference-call mode, apparently split between “drop it and hope it blows over” and reality. For now, NAPWA’s Terje Anderson has the last word. “More than ever before, this fight is being fought on a political plane,” he said at Barcelona. “But it remains unclear if [we] are truly willing to take the risks…. It may be safe to give advocacy speeches and blow whistles…at an AIDS conference, but how many are willing to do the same when it could mean loss of government funding, loss of access to decision-makers, unemployment, social isolation or the personal experience of discrimination and stigma?” Souder and his Christian Al Qaeda have declared jihad; the tanks are approaching. It’s time for all of us in the HIV community to remember what one 9/11 hero said before dying: “Let’s roll.”
Walter Armstrong Editor in Chief e-mail: WalterA@poz.com