January / February 2012
by Regan Hofmann
Few people have fought as long, as hard and as effectively for people with HIV as Congresswoman Barbara Lee. There has not been a single piece of HIV-related legislation taken to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives that has not carried her signature. In fact, she coauthored or cosponsored many of the bills, including the three bills currently garnering attention in the House and in the media. The first is The Justice for the Unprotected against Sexually Transmitted Infections among the Confined and Exposed, or JUSTICE Act, which would allow prisons to provide condoms to incarcerated people and which calls for automatic reinstatement or reenrollment in Medicaid for people who test positive for HIV in prison before reentering communities. The second is The Repeal HIV Discrimination Act; it’s designed to eliminate discrimination in the law for those who have tested positive for HIV. And the third is The Real Education for Healthy Youth Act (REAL 2.0). It would expand comprehensive sex education while ensuring that federal funds are spent on effective, age-appropriate, medically accurate programs.
Together, these three bills would attack major drivers of the domestic HIV epidemic: lack of access to treatment, particularly among disenfranchised African-American men; the wrongful incarceration of people with HIV, which only serves to heighten the stigma and discrimination around HIV that frightens people away from testing and knowing their status; and, finally, a lack of lifesaving information about sexual health among youth.
Understanding the huge role the clergy can play in the fight against HIV/AIDS, especially in African-American communities, Lee has cosponsored a bill with Congressman Charles Rangel (D–N.Y.) called the National Black Clergy for the Elimination of HIV/AIDS Act. It is currently in the Senate.
If that seems like a lot of legislation, it is. But Lee knows it takes laws to truly protect people, and she’s good at getting legislative deals done so that people’s health and safety are legally bound, not left to the whims of political maneuvering.
Lee cut her AIDS activism teeth with ACT UP in the Bay Area. In 1988, John Iverson and Maudelle Shirek (the “mother of progressive politics”) insisted that Lee, then on the city council, attend an ACT UP rally. “It was that moment I knew I had to do something about AIDS,” she said. “So when I was elected into the California legislature in 1990, I started working on needle exchange and whatever else I could. The city of Oakland tried to ensure we had an opt-out of the federal ban on needle exchange. When I came to Congress in ’98, it was a logical next step to continue the work in DC, but I wasn’t sure on what front because [at the time] no one in Washington was dealing with it.”
Lee took a close look at the numbers of AIDS cases in Alameda County, California, and became part of a group pressuring Donna Shalala (who was then secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services) to declare a public health crisis regarding AIDS in America. “She couldn’t do it—she wouldn’t do it,” Lee recalls. “So I decided I needed to really step up.”
One of her first moves was to craft, with Congressman Jim Leach (R–Iowa), the Global AIDS and Tuberculosis Relief Act of 2000. The groundbreaking legislation served as the framework for the Global Fund. The law established a $15 billion global AIDS initiative—at the time it was the biggest financial pledge by any nation in the world to fight a single disease. President Clinton signed it into law.
Shortly afterward, Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D–Calif.), then chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Lee decided to call African-American AIDS activists to Washington. That meeting led to the formation of the Minority AIDS Initiative.
In 2005, she wrote a piece of legislation that protected orphans and vulnerable children affected by HIV/AIDS. And, in 2008, she coauthored legislation that renewed PEPFAR—the global AIDS program—successfully lobbying to increase the United States’ commitment to $48 billion through 2013 to the fight against HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.
She also coauthored the Protection Against Transmission of HIV for Women and Youth Act (PATHWAY) to reduce women and girls’ vulnerability to the virus. And she advocated for the development of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy and secured House passage of a resolution supporting the goals and ideals of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
The Congresswoman helped lift the ban on people with HIV traveling to the United States (a change that allows the International AIDS Conference to be held in DC this coming summer), and she was recently appointed as the only U.S. representative to the United Nations’ Global Commission on HIV and the Law. She fights homophobia and has long worked to improve relations with our Caribbean neighbors and was instrumental in ending the ineffective embargo against Cuba. In 2005, she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize along with a group of women from 150 countries who were part of “1,000 Women for Peace”—an international coalition.
And, when not doing all that, she’s been a leader in a bipartisan congressional effort to end the genocide in Darfur, Sudan.
Lee’s work is distinguished not only by the sheer volume and relentless nature of it, but especially by her willingness to address topics some of her fellow members of Congress would rather not hear about, let alone be asked to take a public position on. Topics like syringes, condoms, the health of prisoners, teen sexuality, poverty and racism. While other members are all too happy to stick their heads in the sand about how these issues impact their constituents, Lee takes direct action to change policy to protect those who would otherwise be taken advantage of, simply because they’re vulnerable.
It is her duty, she believes, to speak on behalf of those whose voices are muted. And she listens well to what people need so that when she does speak, it is with the authority that comes from an insider’s knowledge of an issue. She has long worked closely, and directly, with those living with and affected by HIV.
A large part of whether or not we’ll succeed in ending the pandemic lies in continued congressional leadership. With her vast experience, personal engagement and fierce determination to finish what she started, Lee will likely be at the helm of this effort. On September 15, 2011, Lee, with cochairs Congressman Trent Franks (R–Ariz.) and Congressman Jim McDermott (D–Wash.), launched the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus (it was formerly the Congressional Task Force on International HIV/AIDS) to examine methods by which the United States can maintain global leadership in response to the epidemic. The 68-member (as we go to press) caucus focuses on implementing the U.S. National HIV/AIDS Strategy, the financing for bilateral and multilateral HIV/AIDS programs, the state of HIV/AIDS research, the role of faith-based organizations in stopping AIDS, and the 2012 International AIDS Conference coming to DC this summer.
Lee says political action is particularly key now. She encourages people living with HIV/AIDS to plug into the presidential campaign and get engaged. She says HIV/AIDS must become a key issue for the presidential race. And, she’d love us to support the congressional caucus. “Call your members and ask them to join,” she says.
“As a member of Congress, my job is motivational. I need to inspire people to come back into the fold to believe they can be empowered. Change is hard, but it’s possible.” She tells a story of meeting with several hundred hardcore, progressive Democrats. Once supporters, they had become disenchanted. “They threw every criticism they could my way. I spent two hours answering all their questions, and in the end they came around. I walked them through everything we had done and laid out all that is left to do and explained if we don’t [keep going forward together], we’ll leave it to the right-wingers. And that’s not good.”
When I ask her about the despondency of many Americans and the resultant Occupy Wall Street movement, she says, “We need to reignite the American dream. Congress needs to go beyond the call of duty this next year. And women and African Americans and people of color have to let other people who are struggling now in America know the struggles they’ve been through. I think about all the people who sacrificed and died as a result of fighting for what they believed in. If they had given up, I couldn’t be here. And you’re going to tell me you’re going to give up? No, we have to keep fighting for what people need.”
On World AIDS Day, I asked Lee how it felt to work so hard, for so long, on such a tough, unpopular issue and then to bear witness to President Obama as he recommitted publicly to the fight against AIDS. She answered, “I know this president. And we worked very closely with his staff. They really got it. It was a joint effort. But it was really remarkable to hear him speak and look at our letter and say, ‘Yes,’ ‘Yes,’ ‘Yes.’ It made me say, ‘Yes Mr. President! Thank you very much.’”
But soon, her ebullient expression shifted to a look of firm resolve. Because she knows all too well that it’s one thing to say we have the ability to start ending AIDS—and another thing entirely to secure the political and financial capital to make the president’s resolve to end the pandemic a reality. In many ways, the president’s public stance in support of HIV/AIDS has only called for a greater push in her own work. Now, she faces the daunting task of getting several hundred of her colleagues to join her in voting for legislation and budgets that will stop people from dying of AIDS and prevent the spread of the virus. And she will try to do so in a political environment that’s so toxic that something as simple as extending the payroll tax cuts is twisted into a logjamming moment by the Republicans.
So rather than stand around basking in the afterglow of her good work, Lee pulls on her coat and rushes out the door, hard-charging the next steps. She scurries back to the Rayburn building for a reception hosted by the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus. Later, after casting a round of votes, she hosts a reception in the Senate for Bono and Keys where she uses her floor time to impress upon the senators in attendance the need to continue to support the bipartisan war against the deadly virus.
Before we part, she shares her crazy upcoming schedule, noting that the next Congressional session will likely eat into her well deserved vacation time at home. I ask if things are always as harried and demanding. “Yes,” she says sounding slightly resigned, but grinning.
Her smile seems to say, It is the holiday season—but injustices need to be addressed, homeless people need housing, inmates need condoms, injection drug users need clean syringes, 28 million people around the world with HIV—including nearly 850,000 Americans—need antiretroviral drugs, impoverished people need food and jobs and hope, and with such a list of problems and so many suffering, there is simply no time to waste.
Luckily for us and everyone else she fights for, it appears that Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s not wasting a nanosecond of anyone’s precious time.
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