Bush’s antigay AIDS advisors get the boot

George W. Bush’s Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) embarrassed itself again this winter when a Christian right, antigay nominee withdrew under duress and then the council’s Christian right, antigay director was fired, er, kicked upstairs. AIDS advocates took these developments as a hopeful sign that PACHA’s abstinence-only juggernaut may be foundering and a more moderate body with the president’s ear but no formal power may result.

The debacle began in January, with the nomination of Pennsylvania marketing consultant Jerry Thacker. Thacker, it turned out, had once called AIDS “the gay plague” and homosexuality a “sinful deathstyle.” He supported efforts to “rescue the homosexual” through Christian conversion. He also claimed—science be damned —that “pores in a latex condom are up to 450 times larger than a single cell of the HIV virus.” The Washington Blade broke the story of Thacker’s long antigay record, The Washington Post ran it above the fold, and presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry took it to the airwaves.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer sprang into damage-control mode, announcing that “the views [Thacker] holds are far, far removed from what the president believes.” Then the religious right went, well, ballistic. On Janu-ary 23, Concerned Women for America’s Sandy Rios called Thacker a “good and decent nominee” and said that “Fleischer’s comments were what you might expect from the character assassins and religious bigots of the far left.” Still, less than a week before he was to be sworn in, the contentious conservative withdrew.

PACHA director Pat Ware was widely considered the force behind Thacker’s nomination, and in early February word broke that she’d been pink-slipped—allegedly to accept a more influential role at Health and Human Services. Ware had consistently alienated AIDS advocates—and the more  moderate members of the council—during her 16-month tenure, stacking PACHA with abstinence-only devotees and tossing out the meeting agenda to deliver lectures on the virtues of marriage.

With Ware and Thacker out, is there a chance that the climate in PACHAland will become more hospitable? The new council still has exactly zero HIV researchers. Treatment Committee chair Brent Minor, who is openly gay and openly HIV positive, will soon be the last Democrat standing. A few new appointees do show promise, however, including two more HIV positive gay men: Bush campaign supporter David Greer, on the board of the national gay-rights group Human Rights Campaign, and Don Sneed, a Dallas-based African-American AIDS activist.

According to Minor, all the drama may at least provide “a reality check” for right-wing forces on the council, since, at a January 31 press conference, Bush called AIDS czar Joe O’Neill, an openly gay former HIV clinician, “as fine a human being as you’ll ever know.” Minor thinks such rhetoric may even signal an AIDS power shift within the White House. “Whoever succeeds Pat Ware is likely to be someone compatible with Joe’s agenda,” he said. And that, activists hope, may mean morality will be blinded by science.