8.14.00 - 8.17.00 Democratic Convention
Neither low-flying helicopters nor high-handed
platform committee neglect could quite keep AIDS in the Democratic Party
shadows this year, reports Stacie Stukin.
August in Los Angeles is smoggy, dry and intolerably
hot. But the scorching sky didn't seem to bother the 35,000 delegates
and members of the press at the Democratic convention. They spent their
four days in L.A. hermetically sealed inside the city's sparkling new
Staples Center, munching on Jody Maroni sausages and McDonald's french
fries from fast-food stands conveniently lining the air-conditioned
Outside on the sweltering streets, the blinding
sun was inescapable, reflecting off shiny office buildings, well-waxed
cars and the Plexiglas face shields of law-enforcement riot gear. There
were cops everywhere. In cars, on motorcycles, on horses. On every corner,
holding nightsticks. And standing firmly at attention, sometimes seven
deep, as they flanked the routes of protest marches.
The LAPD showed up in vast numbers Tuesday night,
August 15, as the Queers and Allies March took off on its merry way
from the "designated protest area" at Pershing Square to City Hall to
demand passage of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, hate-crimes
and domestic-partnership legislation, universal health care, an end
to immigration restrictions for people with HIV, and increased funding
for AIDS research; to kiss-in and, finally, to die-in.
The agenda was grand, but why not? The Democrats
were in town, not the Republicans, and these folks knew that the queer
vote was critical in electing Clinton/Gore twice and would be in electing
Gore/Lieberman, too. "We want to make sure they're talking the talk
and walking the walk when it comes to our issues," said Sergio
Morales, of Queers in L.A., an activist group that helped organize the
march. "We don't want to be marginalized."
The power of the queer vote wasn't completely
lost on Democratic operatives. Earlier that day, First Lady and senate
hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton made a special trip to a gay and lesbian
Democratic caucus reception in a hotel near the Staples Center, where,
happily, the room's floral carpeting matched her sea-foam green suit
and her large Barbara Bush pearls. Her smile glowed as the eyes of Secret
Service agents darted around like hungry birds and the whole caucus
stood up and cheered long, roaring cheers. "I'm not here to talk about
policy," she told the riveted group -- probably a good decision, given
her role in scuttling hopes for a national health care plan early in
her husband's tenure. "I'm not here to talk about legislation. I'm here
to say thank you for the support you have given me and the President
over the last eight years."
This Democratic convention was beginning to look
a lot like Philadelphia, where voters were invited to nosh on token
gestures of inclusion as a no-cal substitute for real programs. Peter
Mackler, who refers to himself as "unabashedly and proudly partisan"
and serves as HIV policy advisor to California state senator John Burton
(D), swallowed the liberal snacks whole. "The most significant occurrence
at the convention," he told me, "is that Al Gore specifically mentioned
AIDS in his acceptance speech. Sometimes we in the Democratic Party
take that for granted, but at the Republican convention they only mentioned
AIDS once, and that was in terms of family planning." While African-American
leaders ripped into the vice-presidential nominee for his lack of enthusiasm
for affirmative action and AFL-CIO organizers grumbled audibly about
Gore's support for free trade, most AIDS advocates inside the main hall
loyally closed ranks around the Democrats.
As protesters at the queer march slowly made
their way downtown, whistling, chanting, drumming on huge water bottles
and handing out fliers that read "Because the Democrats haven't taken
action, we are forced to take action!" legislators from AIDS-hit districts
worked the cool back rooms, pushing to keep the epidemic on the agenda
from the inside. The presence of three openly positive elected officials,
including New York State Senator Tom Duane, didn't hurt. (Curiously,
a profile of Duane on the DNC website neglected to disclose that he
is gay or HIV positive, Duane's two most public attributes.) Duane says
that when he first read the draft party platform, it characterized AIDS
only as a global crisis -- not a domestic one. With the help of two
colleagues from New York and a sympathetic platform committee member,
Duane got strong domestic language added. "Our nation must do all it
can to focus its efforts on fighting HIV and AIDS," the final platform
reads. "A top priority for Democrats will be the continued investment
in research, prevention, care and treatment, and we are deeply committed
to a search for a cure. Democrats continue to support important programs
such as the Ryan White CARE Act, the Housing Opportunities for People
with AIDS program, and incentives to return Americans with HIV/AIDS
"It just goes to show you that you have to have
a seat at the table to have a say," Duane said. "Just having [platform]
inclusion at all is significant, especially since there's now a feeling
in the general public that the AIDS crisis is over. Hello? One of my
best friends is dying." Duane, a onetime ACT UPer, pointedly wore his
pink and black SILENCE = DEATH pin each day, just to drive that point
The button may be a late '80s relic, but its
spirit was very much alive on the L.A. streets. At several spots along
the queer protest route, the 1,000 raucous marchers fell completely
silent, on cue, each one holding a clenched fist in the air. The only
sound during these hushed moments of mourning was the hum of the LAPD's
"I found the left fist and silence so moving,"
says veteran L.A. AIDS activist Robin Podolsky. "It demonstrated a new
alliance between seasoned activists and young people, a sense of cooperation
and trust." Podolsky also said he felt "anguished," because "I see a
big difference between the Democrats and the Republicans, and the young
people don't." For L.A. City AIDS Coordinator Ferd Eggan, the march
was a tonic. "As a PWA, it made me feel more energized," Eggan said.
"And that hasn't happened for a long time."
Despite all the feel-good unity out on the street
and up on the dais (where Dems endlessly patted themselves on the back
for choosing the first major-party Jewish candidate for veep), Malcolm
Harris, senior coordinator for AMASSI, a South Los Angeles wellness
center, was noticing a great divide. "It's true the numbers of gay white
men with HIV are going down," he said, "but what's happening with everyone
else? We need to focus more on the African and the African-American
community." After he and I spent two long hours at a convention-eve
Congressional Black Caucus town meeting without hearing a single mention
of AIDS, it seemed the African-American epidemic, at least, had slipped
from the spotlight.
But Harris had just returned from a Council for
Africa satellite meeting that was all AIDS, all the time. The star-studded
cast of speakers included Rev. Jesse Jackson, AIDS czar Sandy Thurman
and former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, who's now director of
USAID's Africa Bureau. Jackson, with his undeniable charisma, fired
this group up when he said, "It's morally unacceptable for the United
States to ignore the plight of the 6,000 people now dying a day on the
continent from complications of HIV/AIDS and the 10 million AIDS orphans
living in Africa." Speaker after speaker piled on praise for Rep. Barbara
Lee (D-CA), who initiated the five-year, $500 million AIDS Marshall
Plan, which would establish a World Bank fund for AIDS prevention and
care. A few days later, President Clinton signed the bill into law.
But with most AIDS talk shoved to the sidelines,
it took Jesse Milan, Jr., 44, to bring the message into homes all over
the world. Milan, who directs the National Prevention Information Network
at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was asked by Thurman
to join Tuesday night's health care panel. Milan has been positive for
18 years and chose to make his way to the stage with a red ribbon on
his lapel -- broadcasting a message to Americans and party leaders alike.
"I wanted to put a human face on AIDS," Milan
said, "so they could see an African American really articulate the issues
in a politically charged context." The sparkling lights and frantically
waving signs all faded for Milan when a stranger approached him offstage.
The woman said simply, "I am so proud of you and so grateful for what
you did." Then she began to cry. "I could read in her eyes she was trying
to say more that she couldn't express. I was honored that I had publicly
expressed a concern in her heart."
No doubt what she heard in Milan's talk was an
assertion that the AIDS crisis isn't over, even here in the United States.
That's something the Democrats, with a push, will admit -- at least
between now and November.