Elton John at AIDS 2018 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands (Credit: International AIDS Society/Marten van Dijl)
Like 15,000 other HIV advocates, providers, and researchers, I am just off the heels of attending the 22nd AIDS 2018 conference hosted by the International AIDS Society in Amsterdam. As I arrived at Schiphol airport, donning a "Silence=Death" t-shirt in homage to ACT UP and ready to experience all that the conference and Amsterdam had to offer, I never would have imagined that on just the second day of the conference I would bear witness to the silencing of black gay men's voices and an affront to the experiences of black people across the diaspora -- perpetrated by none other than Elton John and his foundation.
With the honor of attending such an important meeting comes not only accountability to the communities from which we hail as conference delegates, but also a responsibility to ensure that individuals speaking to our communities' issues do so respectfully and with the cultural humility it behooves any of us to model whenever occupying a critical world stage. Thus, I would be remiss not to shine a light on Elton John's problematic remarks during a session focused on combating worldwide HIV- and LGBTQIA-related stigma, in which he patronizingly admonished black people for not loving each other enough, and in which he called out black American celebrities for allegedly not doing enough to fight stigma globally among black communities.
A Focus on Key Populations
The session was organized by the Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF) and was intended, or so it initially seemed, to highlight the perilous circumstances that black people in Africa live under due to HIV- and LGBTQIA-related stigma. As we saw in a series of powerful photographs from a recent opinion piece by Elton John in the New York Times, and as we learned from numerous art exhibits and educational booths at the AIDS 2018 Global Village, for many LGBTQIA African people and other socially marginalized groups across the globe living with HIV, stigma commonly manifests as heinous, often fatal cases of violence. While the vulnerability captured within these photographs -- on which Elton John was subsequently invited to reflect during the session in Amsterdam -- was palpable, perhaps what was most remarkable about them was the overwhelming power of human connection and radical love conveyed through the intertwining of black bodies.
For those of us in the room seeing these photographs and watching a video that included testimonies of African people living with HIV and LGBTQIA people, it was impossible not to feel compelled to action, not only to address stigma and discrimination in Africa but in all countries from which we hailed as delegates, including the United States.
In the past two years alone in the U.S., a record number of transgender women of color have been murdered within their own communities, part of an epidemic of violence that extends back for decades. Many of these women's deaths are attributable to gun violence, but media coverage of their deaths is largely drowned out by stories of mass shootings in suburbia.
To this day, HIV criminalization persists in the United States and many parts of the world. Regardless of whether people have a low risk of transmitting HIV, and regardless of whether they have actually disclosed their HIV status to romantic or sexual partners, people can be prosecuted criminally and held liable through civil courts merely for being sexual beings.
Because of the U.S. government's racist, xenophobic, inhumane, and incompetent disaster response, potentially 4,600 people died in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria; as reported at AIDS 2018, this event also had a profound impact on individuals living with HIV and AIDS.
Thus, what appeared to be the intent of the conference session overall was commendable: highlighting the impacts of assaults on the human rights of key populations in the global response to HIV and AIDS. However, midway into the session it became apparent that the event was perhaps intended more to raise funds for -- and to elevate the profile of -- the Elton John AIDS Foundation. When asked to reflect on the photographs and testimonies in the video, Elton John himself issued a call to action that quickly devolved into an oddly framed diatribe, in which he called out black celebrities who, he said, needed to "get off their asses" and start doing more to undermine HIV- and LGBTQIA-related stigma.
It was not his call to action that some attendees took issue with, but rather the glaringly anti-black, low-key racist, tone-deaf manner in which he chose to deliver that message, prompting me and others to voice our disapproval on social media. He put his anti-black attitudes on full display by specifically calling out Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, and Frank Ocean as examples of black celebrities who should pay less attention in their music to their cars and fortunes and pay more attention -- as well as financial support -- to causes addressing stigma because, as he alluded, there are limits to what he can achieve as a white man.
EJAF's Silencing of Community Members' Voices
To add insult to injury, according to attendees who spoke on the condition of anonymity given their relationship to EJAF, the event was highly choreographed to the point that the session moderator refused to take questions in an equitable manner, and the organizers had allegedly even provided pre-prepared statements to some attendees planted in the audience. Several attendees approached the microphones to directly respond to Elton John's reckless comments about black celebrities who "[do] nothing" to help the millions of people (who Elton John repeatedly referred to as "these people") who tragically succumb to persistent assaults on their livelihoods grounded in HIV- and LGBTQIA-related stigma.
One delegate in the audience stood at a microphone for over 30 minutes to address Elton John's comments and was essentially ignored by the session moderator. This person ultimately deferred his opportunity to speak at the microphone to another delegate, a woman who was waiting to speak. Once she was finally called upon, this woman challenged Elton John's misguided comments about black people. She noted very poignantly that, historically, when black people in the U.S. have attempted to mobilize, as the Black Panthers did, to care for one another and divest our resources from oppressive systems in order to invest in programs to uplift our own communities, the U.S. government has strategically undermined these efforts.
In response to Elton John's comments that black people need to begin loving each other more, Marc Thompson, of BlackOut UK and curator of the "Diasporan Dialogues" event during the conference, shared that he was diagnosed with HIV at 17 years old, has been living with the virus for 32 years, and thinks his own survival has been precisely attributable to the love he has received from black people, including other black gay men. By the time the session ended, audience members were decrying as shameful the blatant manner in which community voices were silenced by the event organizers from the EJAF and the session moderator. However, Thompson hopes that this serves as an opportunity for funders such as EJAF to be intentional about supporting participatory action programs spearheaded by leaders who are native to communities highly impacted by HIV and LGBTQIA stigma.
As was noted by another delegate who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, the session amounted to a missed opportunity on the part of the EJAF to have a respectful dialogue and model effective, ethical community engagement. "It was clear to me," he said, "that we were watching a theater production, a very carefully staged act, all of which exposed the fact that nothing we were experiencing in that moment was truly real." Further, he said, "I felt like black gay men were being used to raise funds rather than to truly empower community." Ultimately, the opportunity to elevate community voices during the session was lost.
While there is no denying that Elton John has been one of the more socially conscious charitable millionaires who have donated to the global response to HIV and AIDS, it certainly would have been in his best interests to take comments from audience members, because it would have allowed for a teachable moment of genuine dialogue around effective strategies in the global fight against HIV- and LGBTQIA-related stigma. In the previous five years alone, the Elton John AIDS Foundation has directed over $20 million to global anti-stigma initiatives and projects supporting vulnerable groups. Nonetheless, by no means does Elton John's humanitarian record absolve him of responsibility for checking his privilege at the door, nor does it give him or any other white person the license to criticize any black person for allegedly not contributing enough to causes related to HIV, LGBTQIA rights, or the plethora of social-structural perils and intersectional stigmas that black people face worldwide.
Ironically, Elton John's track record on funding HIV responses from community-based organizations -- in essence for people to be empowered to speak out against the powers that be -- in this instance served as a barrier to elevating community voices of black LGBTQIA people in response to his outlandish comments. Several individuals who were present during the session and approached for comment for this article declined to participate out of concern for how doing so might impact their existing relationship to EJAF or negatively impact their strategic advocacy work. Thus, as someone who was present during the session, I would like to personally address Elton John's anti-black comments.