Jump-Starting AIDS Advocacy

Jump-Starting AIDS Advocacy

Diverse array of groups descend on capital to revitalize push for prevention, treatment

The unknown dead are part of Washington, D.C.’s monumental backdrop.

What’s unusual is when they come up to the White House lawn. That’s why this past Thursday, the Campaign to End AIDS (C2EA), as part of its kick-off event, deposited at the White House’s north gate 8,500 pairs of shoes, representing the number of people who die from AIDS each day globally.

This action marked the public launch of the C2EA, a coalition of HIV/AIDS organizations dedicated to reinvigorating AIDS advocacy in America.

Faced with an alarming level of complacency, dwindling funds, government inaction and general ignorance, organizers said it was time for renewed effort against the disease.

“The epidemic is officially back on the radar as a growing crisis here and abroad. HIV is making inroads in new communities here in the United States,” said Tim Murphy, a spokesman for the campaign. “It’s not just a gay white man’s disease. Young gay men of color are affected, African-American women are affected, the deep South is becoming affected.”

Murphy pointed to the crowd gathered in front of the White House—a diverse gathering of men and women, white, Hispanic and African-American—as the new face of AIDS activism.

They were the public symbol of a movement that bills itself as a new type of Web-based activist network that includes such venerable organizations as Housing Works and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York and the Drug Policy Alliance in Washington, and newer groups like AIDS Alabama. The goal is to use the knowledge and resources of larger, more experienced organizations to ensure a fairer national distribution of resources and information for those living with HIV and AIDS, especially in places and groups not normally associated with the disease.

The campaigns Web site contains a detailed 21-point plan of problems and solutions it believes will help end the worldwide HIV epidemic. Highlights include the renewal of the Ryan White CARE Act with enough funding so that it can provide HIV medication to all those who qualify, increased funding for the Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS program and a call for more research into microbicides that, when used with condoms, could slow sexual transmission of HIV.

Already, C2EA has its work cut out for it. Last week Congress cut $10 billion dollars from Medicaid, a program that provides many poor HIV-positive individuals with anti-retroviral drugs.

Currently, there are at least 600 people in the U.S. who have no access to HIV medicine even though they qualify for it under the Ryan White CARE Act. Any cuts in Medicaid will almost certainly worsen the situation.

C2EA also calls for the funding of comprehensive sex-education and needle exchange programs. The Bush administration prefers abstinence-only sexual education programs. Currently, there is a ban on the use of federal money for programs that would provide intravenous drug users with sterile needles and lessen their chances of contracting HIV. Even the Clinton administration was unwilling to consider ending that policy.

“This isn’t 1989. We have the treatment. We have the prevention tools. We know what works,” said Murphy, who also works at Housing Works. “We need our leaders to exert the political will to make those available. To get over the discomfort. This is a public health issue. We need to start saving lives.”

Christopher Labonte, legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation’s largest gay advocacy group, said in an interview that funding for all HIV programs is not nearly the amount needed to cover everyone living with the virus who needs drugs and other types of assistance. HRC is not affiliated with the Campaign to End AIDS.

“Because of inadequate funding, many states have waiting lists or have restricted the types of medication their residents are eligible for,” he said. “Our nation and our leaders need to do more, but the commitment from the president and Congress is just not there.”

The protest followed a day of meetings with representatives on Capitol Hill. One of C2EA’s goals is to get constituents talking to their elected officials about what’s needed to better fight the epidemic.

“We’re here to let our politicians know that we are serious, that they work for us and we elected them to take care of us. And they need to rethink they way they’re voting and cutting our money,” said Judith Dillard from Ft. Worth, Texas, a C2EA coordinating committee member.

Significantly more education might be needed before lawmakers enact much of the C2EA’s plan.

When Tom Donohue, the 26-year-old executive director of Who’s Positive met with his representative, Tom Peterson, a Pennsylvania Republican, Petersen’s first words after Donohue informed him that he was positive were, “So does that mean you’re contagious?”

A spokesman for Petersen said the congressman’s meeting with Donohue had been constructive but that he was not privy to the conversation the two men had.

But this kind of misunderstanding can be overcome. It was done early in the plague’s North American history with daring consciousness-raising events by groups like ACT UP. And while there’s no evidence C2EA intends to embark in that specific tradition, many veterans of that earlier round of advocacy have lent their support to this renewed effort.

One thing those veterans are good at are cutting through the old arguments and revealing the implications of current policies.

“Pres. Bush has got lots of rhetoric but no real policies,” said Eric Sawyer, a former ACT UP member and current core organizer for C2EA. “They don’t want to talk about condoms because they believe in abstinence-only. They don’t want to fund programs that work with prostitutes because they hate prostitutes. They don’t want to fund drug treatment or needle exchange because they only care about good Christian people who don’t use drugs. The morality of their AIDS programs are the antithesis of good science and are actually facilitating the spread of AIDS instead of preventing it.”

C2EA has plans for more events. In June, 150 young activists will gather in Colorado for a Youth Training Institute and, in October, nine cross-country caravans will converge on Washington, D.C. for several days of Congressional advocacy.