Refocusing on AIDS

With AIDSVote 2006, advocates press for election-time commitments on epidemic

As the fall elections approach, AIDSVote 2006 is gearing up to put the epidemic back on the political agenda across the country—not just for this year, but in preparation for the 2008 presidential contest, which is already gearing up.

The central demand of the non-partisan AIDSVote effort is “universal access to prevention, treatment, care, and support for all people living with HIV/AIDS by 2010,” both here at home and abroad.

Initiated by the Campaign to End AIDS (, AIDSVote—which made its first appearance on the political scene in 2004—has this year won important support from organizations like Jubilee USA, a coalition of 75 organizations that works to abolish Third World debt to the G-8 countries; the 65,000-member American Medical Students Association; CHAMP, the Community HIV-AIDS Mobilization Project; Results, a non-profit grassroots advocacy group working to end poverty and hunger worldwide; the National Association of People with AIDS (NAPWA); Physicians for Human Rights; the Student Global AIDS Campaign; Advocates for Youth, a coalition leading the fight for science-based sex eduaction; the Center for Health and Gender Equality; and the Health Global Access Project (GAP).

“Organizations like Jubilee that aren’t specifically founded to deal with the AIDS issue have been looking for a way to get a handle on participating in action around AIDS—and now AIDSVote has given it to them, because the focus on universal access to care and treatment by 2010 unifies the global and domestic concerns and moves beyond incrementalism,” explained Michael Kink, director of advocacy for the militant, New York-based AIDS service organization Housing Works, one of the few service providers that has retained a “movement” spirit. It is Housing Works that is providing the central staffing for the AIDSVote campaign.

The strategy of AIDSVote is to make sure that candidates know what it takes to end AIDS, and to identify where they stand on the issues at stake. AIDSVote is planning to produce voter guides this fall that will list responses to a questionnaire on AIDS policies that is being sent to candidates for national and state offices. To put pressure on elected officials to take concrete steps that will achieve the goal of universal coverage for all the HIV-infected by the end of the decade, AIDSVote tactics include petition drives based on the detailed AIDSVote list of demands, and what the group calls “bird-dogging”—showing up at public meetings at which elected officials are present to raise AIDS issues during Q&A sessions.

In New York City, the AIDSVote campaign has included a five-borough petition drive kicked off at June’s LGBT Pride March in Manhattan. The Big Apple effort is spearheaded by Housing Works’ Youth Action Group and its Youth Summer Enrichment Program, that serves the children of Housing Works’ staff and clients, and has been visiting two to three sites per week in all the boroughs.

Petition-gatherers have hit every office of the city’s HIV-AIDS Services Administration (HASA).

“We got an amazing response from staffers entering and leaving HASA offices,” said José Cruz of Housing Works, adding, “Even if HASA brass wouldn’t let us petition inside, they at least showed us some mercy in letting us come in for cool-off breaks during the worst of the recent heat wave.”

AIDSVote is also mounting a significant campaign in upstate New York, with support from the New York AIDS Coalition. Voter registration is an important part of the campaign.

“Lots of people don’t realize how important voting is,” Anthony Howell, a 39-year-old AIDSVote coordinator working out of Housing Works’ Albany office, told Gay City News. “Voting is the only way to get our public officials to realize that we must have science-based education about sex and AIDS instead of faith-based. We’ve got to hold them accountable.”

A major AIDSVote demand is the end of funding for the failed “abstinence-only” method of AIDS education, which has won major federal funding under the Bush administration. Already the upstate campaign has held a community meeting in Syracuse and two in Albany, with support from local grassroots groups such as the Capital District African-American Coalition on AIDS. More meetings are planned in other upstate cities as the November elections approach.

“Our petition drive is hitting community centers, teen centers, churches—and so far the response has been overwhelming,” said Anthony Worrell, AIDSVote Albany petition coordinator. “People seem to really like the idea.”

With Republicans stalling many proactive AIDS initiatives, flatlining domestic AIDS spending, allocating an ever-increasing portion of federal AIDS monies to conservative religious groups as political patronage to subsidize “abstinence-only” programs, and devolving responsibilities in the AIDS battle to the states, AIDSVote has focused extensively on an agenda for AIDS activists at the state level.

This agenda for states includes:

Expanding Medicaid to include everyone living with HIV;

Adequately funding AIDS Drug Assistance Programs (ADAP) that currently fill the gap for those with inadequate or no insurance, but not Medicaid-eligible, to ensure that there are no longer any waiting lists;

Ensuring that Medicaid and ADAP services include all needed medical care, and that Medicaid and the federal Ryan White AIDS Care Act make available essential, but non-medical support services to people living with HIV/AIDS;

Ramping up funding for science-based HIV prevention strategies; and denying money for abstinence-only programs;

Developing government and private support for outreach to vulnerable groups, including men who have sex with men, women and girls, injecting drug users, prisoners, and sex workers;

Housing all homeless people living with HIV/AIDS;

And guaranteeing medical privacy and full human rights for people living with HIV/AIDS.

On the national level, the AIDSVote campaign is taking its message to some areas of the country one doesn’t think of as hotbeds of AIDS activism.

“We’ve got people working to raise the AIDS issue in gubernatorial and senatorial campaigns not just in Florida, but in Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, and North Carolina,” said Housing Works’ Kink. “We have regular conference calls with all the participating national organizations to coordinate and stimulate our efforts for the fall.”

Moreover, explained Kink, “We’ve got to get people excited now about the presidential primaries for 2008—it’s important we begin organizing now to put pressure on all the candidates.”

For more information on AIDSVote, visit its Web site at

Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at