Prevention’s Further Politicization

HIV advocates fault CDC meeting for including right wing, anti-gay groups

A meeting sponsored by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention challenged roughly 100 AIDS activists and experts to “take a fresh look at the HIV epidemic and generate new ideas and new perspectives on HIV prevention and control in the United States.” But the presence at the meeting of right wing organizations that are openly hostile to AIDS groups and looking to slash federal AIDS dollars may have stifled any conversation. “I can’t think of another meeting that I’ve been at where overtly political groups that aren’t doing any HIV prevention work are at the table,” said Terje Anderson, executive director of the National Association of People with AIDS. “I can’t recall ever being at one like this.” While such meetings often include AIDS groups that have a political bent, the CDC event, held in Atlanta on December 4 and 5, included the Family Research Council, the Traditional Values Coalition, Focus on the Family, and Concerned Women for America. The Traditional Values Coalition and the Family Research Council have pressed for federal audits, cuts in HIV prevention funds, and AIDS services spending. They have emphasized financial accountability, but they have also objected to the content of some programs. Concerned Women for America has attacked the efficacy of safe sex efforts and championed programs that only teach abstinence from sex. Focus on the Family produces the Love Won Out conferences which showcase therapies that claim to convert homosexuals to heterosexuality and James Dobson, the Focus of the Family founder, serves on the Family Research Council board. All four groups decry homosexuality and oppose laws that protect gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people from discrimination or bias crimes. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation’s largest gay lobbying group, also had a representative at the meeting. HRC is a member of National Organizations Responding to AIDS, an umbrella organization of AIDS groups. Attendees at the meeting reported that representatives from some of the right wing groups made some anti-gay comments. Most of the remarks are attributed to Peter Sprigg, a Family Research Council senior staffer. Paul Kawata, executive director of the National Minority AIDS Council, quoted Sprigg saying about homosexuals “I think you’re demented and an abomination, but I bet you think the exact same thing of me, so I guess we’re even,” during one session. “I’ve never been to one that was so openly hostile,” Kawata said. “To be honest with you, it was very disheartening. Here we are in 2002, 20 years into the epidemic, and we are still arguing about things like this. As a gay man, my life is committed to stopping the spread of this virus, and to have to justify our existence just seems overwhelming.” Anderson said Sprigg made similar comments during a later session. “During the closing plenary, Peter Sprigg from the Family Research Council got up and said ‘You’re not going to like what I have to say,’” Anderson said. “Basically he said we need to stop telling young people that homosexuality is an acceptable choice and we need to give people who think they are gay other options including using these funds to give them reparative therapy.” Reparative therapy’s advocates claim that it turns homosexuals straight. Other attendees, who would only be cited anonymously, recalled comments along the lines of “Sex between men is wrong,” and “AIDS is caused by homosexuality, drug abuse, and promiscuity.” A Family Research Council spokesman declined to comment citing the group’s policy of not speaking to the gay press. Focus on the Family and the Traditional Values Coalition did not return calls. Peter LaBarbera, senior policy analyst at the Culture and Family Institute of the Concerned Women of America, said his colleagues were abused as well. “We could find statements too,” he said. “We could find many comments that were equating us with bigots and racists, all sorts of cheap shots on the other side.” LaBarbera could not say if the meeting was at all useful. “I don’t know,” he said. “There were a lot of discussions about politics and who was offended by what comment.” Two senior staffers at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, including Ana Oliveira, the executive director, attended the conference, but the agency did not respond to request for comment. The CDC saw some use to the event. “Our goal in the summit was to have a diverse set of views,” said Dr. Harold W. Jaffe, CDC’s director of the National Center for HIV, STD, and TB Prevention. “We wanted to include people who, at least, had a public health interest… There has been a lot of discussion about the role of abstinence education for youth… We wanted to be sure that all sides of that issue were represented.” Jaffe said that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had been kept apprised of who was attending. He could not say if the White House supplied any names. “We weren’t directed to invite any particular organization,” he said. “We certainly kept HHS aware of who we were planning to invite. They provided some names.” While the meeting did not produce many HIV prevention strategies, the dialogue was useful, according to Jaffe. “I think the meeting was helpful in that it did provide an opportunity for some discussion between some of the key disagreeing parties,” he said. “I don’t think we got a whole lot of specific suggestions about strategies we ought to be taking. The hostile comments, especially the advocacy of reparative therapy, were not productive, he said. “It was obviously not well received,” Jaffe said. “I don’t think any of us saw that as constructive.” The CDC will publish a report on the meeting, but Jaffe could not say if it will contain the comments about homosexuality or the suggestion on promoting reparative therapy. “We haven’t seen the draft, but I personally wouldn’t think that those comments would be very useful,” he said. National Association for People With AIDS’ Anderson questioned the usefulness of having strictly political groups attend. “At what point does somebody so reject the values that you have in HIV prevention that they don’t have a right to be at the table?” he asked. “If somebody feels that gay men’s lives are not worth preserving, that the only way a gay man can be protected is by changing him, what place do they have in a dialogue?” There are AIDS activists who are interested in launching a discussion on the successes and failures of HIV prevention but said that the CDC meeting was not the right setting.