Denise Stokes, DNC Diva
Denise Stokes wasn’t even fazed when, just days before Boston’s Democratic National Convention, party organizers called and asked her to address the delegates. “If I’m speaking at the YMCA to five people or to the DNC, I have to do everything in my power to make sure the issues of people with HIV are heard clearly,” says the 35-year-old spoken-word artist and AIDS educator. The fact that she had been invited only because Democrats had bowed, at the last minute, to delegates demanding HIVer representation didn’t rattle her, either. (“That’s what activists do,” says the deceptively soft-spoken Stokes.) But when she arrived from her home in Atlanta, she was a little less calm. “It was a whirlwind of activity—people poking me, prodding me: ‘Say this,’ ‘Do that,’” she says. “I had to shut them out.”
Stokes has faced infinitely tougher challenges. At 13, she was raped. At 16, she found out that her rapist had infected her with HIV. “The day I got diagnosed was the first time I picked up a drink,” Stokes says. That drink launched a years-long descent into alcoholism and crack addiction. After surviving a brutal rape attempt, Stokes hit bottom and found her way into a 12-step program. “Being in recovery showed me I could say what I felt and nobody would be mad,” she says. She compares the experience to “being shot out of a cannon. I felt free for the first time.”
In 1991, encouraged by a counselor, Stokes started speaking publicly about being a straight African-American woman with HIV. Her reputation as a powerful advocate landed her on President Bill Clinton’s AIDS Advisory Council in 1995, where Stokes fought for expanded Medicaid coverage and prevention education for schoolchildren. She served Clinton for five years and says, “I believe he listened.”
In Boston this July, Stokes delivered a short, uncompromising speech calling for policies serving all HIVers, including women, prisoners and drug users. “We can give a voice to all of those who have not been heard, like the children who have been infected because teachers and community leaders have been forbidden to talk frankly about life-and-death decisions.”
The untelevised address may not have made headlines, but Stokes was stoked. “I want Bush out,” says the registered Democrat who offers fellow HIVers this election message: “Be proactive in the same way you are with your meds,” she says. “Get your own facts, and make your own decisions about the political atmosphere. The rest will be self-evident.”
David Greer, Republican Rebel
In 2000, a group of gay and lesbian Republicans secured a meeting with presidential hopeful George W. Bush. Among them was HIVer David Greer (above), who gets goosebumps just thinking about the gathering. “To be a part of that felt beyond words, beyond everything I was prepared for in life,” says the frank, loquacious 39-year-old. Greer became a vigorous campaigner and fundraiser for Dubya, and in 2002, his efforts were rewarded with an appointment to Bush’s AIDS Advisory Council. But in 2004, Greer was equally unprepared when Dubya backed a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. “Everything about that meeting has been thwarted,” he says. Greer is now voting for John Kerry.
Greer, who is still a registered Republican and works as a speechwriter in Washington, DC, insists that at first, Bush was good to gays. But Greer became disillusioned with the administration’s policies on generic AIDS meds and insufficient support of ADAP. It was the marriage amendment that forced Greer to publish an op-ed in the Philadelphia Gay News admitting that he “was looking for an alternative” to Bush and, later, to support Kerry openly.
That hasn’t been easy. Greer was raised in conservative Colorado Springs and joined the gay organization Log Cabin Republicans in 1995, eventually becoming its director of public affairs. Four years later, his dentist father diagnosed him with trenchmouth. “He asked if I knew my HIV status, and I said, ‘I think it’s no.’ He said, ‘That’s not what I see.’” Both men went into denial. Greer was officially diagnosed in 2001.
Today, Greer says their relationship has improved, but the same can’t be said for his feelings about the Republican party and its antigay platform. “We’ll play hardball,” he says of gays in ’04. “Don’t expect our vote, and don’t expect our money.
David Munar, AIDSVote Agitator
“We need to be at the table where the decisions are made,” says HIVer David Munar, 33. “A responsible solution cannot be reached without us.” Munar (below) is associate director of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago; on its behalf, he helped cofound the nonprofit website AIDSVote.org. The site features a graphically stylish, easy-to-grasp political platform that lays out positions on crucial HIVer issues for the 2004 election (for example, “We demand safe, affordable and medically appropriate housing for people living with HIV”). The platform has been endorsed by an impressive 200 organizations.
The site also offers a handy comparison of John Kerry’s and George Bush’s positions on AIDS. The comparison is intended to educate the public—and the candidates: AIDSVote sent detailed questionnaires to Kerry and Bush; only the Kerry campaign responded. Munar says the Bush camp does send him an e-mail once every three weeks, saying it’s working on a draft. “I generally believe them,” the deep-voiced but mellow Munar says, hewing to AIDSVote’s nonpartisan stance. He will admit that Dubya’s no-show “speaks for itself.”
Despite Munar’s diplomacy, there’s no disputing his party affiliation. Not only was he a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, he was instrumental in pushing for an HIVer to speak at the event, calling and e-mailing Kerry reps to remind them of past conventions’ high-profile HIVers. “If it was important four and eight years ago, then it is now,” he says. The Dems conceded, but Munar was disappointed: “The party could have done a lot more about articulating its pledges around AIDS and organizing positive delegates in Boston.”
Munar’s drive stems from watching his parents—immigrants from Colombia—thrive in the U.S. Raised in New Mexico, Munar attended Northwestern University, where he came out and advocated for gay rights and, after college, immigrant rights. That led to a position at the AIDS Foundation in 1991. When he was later diagnosed with HIV, Munar was flooded with guilt, believing he should have known better. “It motivated me more,” he says. “I channeled the anger I had about becoming infected into work.”
Munar is optimistic that he’ll be able to resurrect AIDSvote when the 2008 campaign rolls around. “It’s been really energizing,” he says. “We got AIDS agencies to go beyond their policies and work together.