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Opinion

Now Is the Time for People With HIV to Run for Office

December 15, 2017

Microphone and American flag

Credit: Denisfilm for iStock via Thinkstock


A little over a year ago, the HIV community was in a period of mourning. We looked around -- some of us in disbelief and others with the dread realization that the thing we had feared would happen now had -- and we grieved for a loss the scope of which we had been unwilling to fully imagine just days before. Congress was still in the hands of men and women (but mostly men) who had campaigned on a promise to take away the health care we had only recently been given and the equality we had begun to sense was drawing near. Where we once had a champion in the White House (or at least a man of integrity and conscience we knew to be on our side) we now had a monster -- a man so utterly devoid of humanity and decency as to make us question whether we could live in a nation where he could masquerade as our leader.

Today, 400-some-odd days since the election of Donald Trump as president, we still face a world that many of us struggle daily to comprehend. It is a world regularly replenished with horrors and travails that we feared might come after his ascension, but which still leave us dumbstruck, often incapable of comprehending the wretchedness that has become the daily fare of an administration and a Congress that have made it their mission to chip away at the foundation of all that makes progress possible for people living with HIV.

That the Trump administration and the GOP-led Congress have thus far failed in their attempts to roll back decades of progress in health care and civil rights isn't for a lack of trying but because of the concerted efforts of a citizenry that would not allow it. This same citizenry went to the polls over the past few weeks and roundly defeated the hateful and reactionary populism that so dominated the 2016 election, with no statement being quite so emphatic as the one made this week by voters in Alabama, who elected Democratic candidate Doug Jones to the U.S. Senate over his Republican opponent, Roy Moore.


Related: Lessons From History for Today's HIV Response

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On the one hand, the victory of a respected, relatively moderate civil rights attorney over a professional bigot and pedophile who had been fired or suspended the last two times he held public office isn't terribly shocking. On the other hand, we're talking about Alabama about here. This is a state that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election and, while many states are tearing down their Confederate monuments, Alabama is actually building new ones. Heck, before Doug Jones, the state of Alabama hadn't sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1992 and that man, the current senior senator from Alabama, Richard Shelby, switched his party affiliation to Republican shortly afterwards as the last remnants of Strom Thurmond's Democratic Party migrated to the GOP.

By itself, Doug Jones's victory over Roy Moore would have been a fine rebuke to the regressive conservatism that President Trump and his ilk brought into the mainstream last year. However, that win didn't happen in a vacuum and came on the heels of an impressive 2017 general election in November, in which Democratic gubernatorial candidates Ralph Northam and Phil Murphy won their races in Virginia in New Jersey, respectively. And, in many ways, the biggest victories of the 2017 elections happened further down the ticket, in races that should provide hope to people living with and affected by HIV.

In Virginia, Democrats flipped at least 15 seats in the state's House of Delegates, with perhaps the most astonishing and inspiring victory being earned by 33-year-old Danica Roem, who became the first openly transgender person ever to be elected to a U.S. statehouse. (Transgender politician Althea Garrison was elected to the Massachusetts Legislature in 1992, but she was not openly transgender during her campaign.) Roem, a journalist who had never before run for public office, defeated 13-term incumbent Robert G. Marshall, a deeply conservative Republican who attempted to pass a transgender bathroom bill earlier in 2017 and a man who has proudly referred to himself as Virginia's "chief homophobe."

Alongside Roem, two black transgender candidates -- Andrea Jenkins and Phillipe Cunningham -- were elected to the Minneapolis City Council; Sean Strub -- HIV advocate, The Sero Project executive director, and POZ founder -- was successful in his bid to become mayor of the town of Milford, Pennsylvania; and Jenny Durkan was elected mayor of Seattle, making her the first openly lesbian mayor in the city's history.

While they may not have garnered the same fanfare as last year's elections or had anywhere near the same impact, make no mistake, the 2017 elections were historic, and they can signal a fundamental shift in the political center of this country if we put the work in. We have seen the LGBT community have tremendous electoral success in 2017, and that success occurred not because candidates were anointed from on high by Democratic Party bigwigs or because a given district or city was overwhelmingly favorable to LGBT candidates, but because ordinary, yet extraordinary individuals took a chance and said, "Now is our time to lead."

A millennial transgender woman and a civil rights attorney who prosecuted the 16th Street Baptist Church bombers just won races over a pair of proud and unrepentant bigots in the twin hearts of the old Confederate South! If that isn't an indication that there is no electoral obstacle too tall to warrant climbing, I don't know what is. And now -- now is that time that the HIV community must throw its collective hat in the ring and take hold of the political mantle that is so deserved. With the exception of former New York State Senator Thomas Duane and a few sitting city councilmembers, the list of people living with HIV in elected office in America is woefully small. 2018 is the year that we change that.

If you're sitting here as someone living with or affected by HIV, reading this, and thinking that you couldn't possibly be qualified to run for office, I can assure you that you are. If you're thinking that running for state senate or city council or your local school board is going to be trying and exhausting, I can assure you that it will be. But, I can also tell you that the entire HIV community -- and a whole host of social justice and health care equity movements -- will be with you, and we will support you in your struggle. Now is the time for the HIV community to make its voice heard not only outside the halls of government, but inside them, as well.

Drew Gibson is a freelance writer and a policy associate at AIDS United in Washington, D.C. You can follow him on Twitter at @SuppressThis or visit his blog "Virally Suppressed," which covers a multitude of issues related to public health and social justice.


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