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July 06, 2007
V 35 Issue 27

 
 
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SCORE ONE FOR THE STIGMA
SCORE ONE FOR THE STIGMA
by Lisa Keen - SGN Contributing Writer The question to Democratic candidates last Thursday night, June 28, was "What is the plan to stop and protect these young people from [the HIV/AIDS] scourge?" It was the first time that the candidates had been asked in a nationally televised forum about HIV/AIDS, and the LGBT community understandably took note. By the time that every candidate had his or her 60 seconds to say how they would prevent HIV from spreading to African American youth, there was a lot to be noted.

The question was asked during a PBS-sponsored debate of the Democratic presidential candidates Thursday night, June 28, at Howard University, a private historically black school in Washington, D.C. The "studio" audience was an auditorium primarily of African Americans, many of them prominent ones -from current Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to founder of the Children's Defense Fund, Marian Wright Edelman.

According to the reporter who asked the question, Michel Martin of National Public Radio, a recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that African American teens comprise 17 percent of the U.S. teenaged population but 69 percent of its teenaged HIV cases.

Senator Hillary Clinton triggered a spontaneous standing ovation from many of the women in the audience when she said that "if HIV/AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34 there would be an outrage, an outcry in this country." She went on to say that, among other things which had been mentioned by other candidates, she's working to increase funding for the Ryan White Act for AIDS treatment "because there are a lot of women particularly who are becoming infected in poor rural areas, as well as underserved urban areas&."

AIDS Action official Ronald Johnson noted that Clinton's remarks appeared to be an effort to mend the fences with the black community who was angry with her last year when she held up funding of the Ryan White Act. Clinton was seeking a formula for distribution of the funds that would benefit larger population states-such as New York, Illinois, and California-and many black organizations felt that the formula recognized a disproportionate percentage of the population of smaller states, particularly in the South, of African American citizens with low incomes.

"If we don't begin to take it seriously and address [AIDS] the way we did back in the nineties when it was primarily a Gay men's disease, we will never get the services and the public education we need," said Clinton, to an enthusiastic response from the audience.

Senator Barack Obama faced a much quieter audience when he suggested that, "One of the things that we have to overcome is a stigma that still exists in our communities." Obama continued by saying: "We don't talk about this. We don't talk about it in the schools; sometimes, we don't talk about it in the churches. It has been an aspect of, sometimes, homophobia," he said, gesturing toward himself but seeming to be speaking about society in general.

While many Gays were happy to hear Obama raise the issue of homophobia surrounding the response to AIDS, there was some consternation and mixed interpretations over what he said later. Senator Joe Biden had just taken the liberty of telling the audience that Obama had taken an HIV test. After Biden finished speaking, Obama asked for the floor.

"I just got to make clear, I got tested with Michelle, when we were in Kenya in Africa. I don't want any confusion here about what's going on," said Obama, as the audience laughed and applauded. "I was tested with my wife, in public." The moderator said he was "sure Michelle appreciates you clarifying that."

Some members of the LGBT community watching the debate or hearing it afterwards said they took Obama's remarks simply as an effort to inject some humor at a time when many in the audience were, no doubt, aghast that Biden would publicly disclose such personal information about another person.

"Barack has been a leader in the fight against AIDS in this country and globally," said Phil Burgess, a Chicago Gay activist and Obama supporter. "He has been at the forefront of working to eliminate the stigma of testing. He simply wanted to provide additional context to his testing in order to demonstrate his leadership on the issue in case people weren't aware."

But others flinched.

"I think Biden was wrong in mentioning Obama's getting tested," said Ronald Johnson, deputy executive director of AIDS Action. "But Obama just needlessly played into some underlying homophobia in black community. By saying he wanted to make it clear, he was saying, 'I don't want anybody to get the wrong idea'. He was needlessly saying, in effect, 'I'm not Gay' and getting a cheap laugh at the expense of Gay men and black Gay men."

"I'm not going to war with him over it," said Johnson, "but you didn't have to go down that track. He could have taken an opportunity to educate -to say 'Everyone should get tested, but it's a private matter. It's for me to say'."

Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said he can believe Obama was "looking for a moment of levity" but "unfortunately, it gave the impression that it's a bad thing to get an HIV test -or that you have to explain why you got an HIV test."

"It shows how difficult it still is for our country's leaders to talk about sex and HIV," said Foreman. "It clearly makes everyone uncomfortable and nervous. Here we're talking about this incredibly important subject&and it becomes something to titter about."

Stampp Corbin, a recently appointed "national LGBT liaison" for the Obama campaign, said he found it a little "disconcerting" that any LGBT person could read something negative into the senator's remark.

"I can understand how some things can be misinterpreted," said Corbin, who has served on the boards of the Human Rights Campaign and the Columbus AIDS Task Force, in Ohio. Corbin said that he interpreted Obama's remark as simply seeking to clarify -given that most people get an HIV test because of sex outside of marriage or a relationship or because of IV drug abuse-that those weren't the reasons in his case.

In fact, Obama and his wife Michelle took an HIV test in Kenya the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during a trip to Kenya last summer as a public education event, at the request of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although his trip was publicized by ABC NEWS and the New York Times, Obama was not yet a candidate for president, so very few people probably knew the reason behind his taking the test. And Corbin concedes that the senator "could have been a little clearer" by explaining those circumstances.

"It wasn't an homophobic remark at all," said Corbin. "&and at the end of the day, you have to look at his record. It speaks volumes."

A similar debate among Republicans is scheduled for September.

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