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Celebrate -- and Keep Fighting

November 6, 2008

'AIDS remains the greatest civil rights issue of our day'
"AIDS remains the greatest civil rights issue of our day"
I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when people in my largely Latino and white neighborhood poured out into the streets at 11 p.m. Tuesday night chanting "Yes we can!" Nor should I have been surprised that I couldn't stop crying from that moment until after Barack Obama and his wife did their last turn and walked off the stage. It doesn't require partisanship to appreciate that yesterday a huge number of Americans, facing crisis all around, chose hope over fear. Nor is it partisan to appreciate that in electing Barack Obama as our next president, we have repudiated a legacy of racism that has plagued our nation since before it's founding. Finally, there is nothing partisan about celebrating a nation choosing to make its way out of crisis by embracing the possibility of progressive change. For all of those reasons, today is a day to celebrate.

We made history in another important way over this last year. We made AIDS a critical part of the national election debate. President-elect Obama offered an AIDS platform that could have been written by us. Senator McCain actually came around to pledging to develop a national strategy to address the AIDS epidemic. And both candidates committed to maintaining or increasing the United States' role in the global fight against AIDS. Health care reform, critical to any national AIDS strategy, is now a top agenda item. And it is not just the presidential race that matters. The religious right no longer has a lock hold in Congress on issues that impact prevention. Even the economic crisis offers an opportunity as the Federal government looks for ways to pour money into local communities to stimulate the economy. For all of this, again, today is a day to celebrate.

But once we've caught our collective breath, we need to take realistic stock of how far we still have to go. Tuesday night America didn't put aside racism, sexism, homophobia or other forms of discrimination, prejudice or social and economic injustice. A majority of Californians, while voting overwhelmingly for Obama, voted in favor of Proposition 8, writing discrimination against lesbians and gay men into their constitution by banning the only recently won right to gay marriage. Here in New York State, the possibility of a progressive State Senate is now being held hostage by four conservative legislators who want to be able to veto various pieces of progressive legislation from even coming to a vote in the next legislative session. And we have already seen self-interested politicians and bureaucrats blaming current economic conditions as a reason to cut back on AIDS services and AIDS prevention.

We should hold Obama and the Democrats true to every progressive promise they have made. We now have a president-elect who favors federal funding for needle exchange. We should do everything in our power to fight for it in a Congress that should need no persuading, but inevitably will. We have a president who believes in reproductive rights and HIV prevention education that follows science rather than ideology. So we should work to strip PEPFAR and CDC legislation of the various proscriptions around reproductive rights, abstinence only sex education and the like. Unfortunately, all too many so-called progressive legislators will resist doing these things for fear of being tarred as endorsing promiscuity, promoting homosexuality, god forbid, or even endorsing prostitution and illicit drug use.

But there is an even bigger danger lurking for us now. Too many people in the AIDS community, and, dare I say, the AIDS industry, think we won last night. They now believe the folks taking office are our friends. We are going to have access now more than ever before, whether in the White House or the Halls of Congress. And, of course, we are going to be called on to be patient with our friends and certainly not do anything to embarrass them.

But they aren't our friends. They are politicians who, however progressive they might appear, live in a world of compromise and competing interests. Now is not the time to be less militant. We still are losing the fight against AIDS here in New York and around the world. It is all too little to late on almost every front, and now we are being told we need to learn to do more with less. All too many people are dying because they didn't get what they needed soon enough whether it was testing, treatment, housing, mental health services or just the food to eat. And the data is clear: More and more people are getting infected with the virus, and those people are overwhelmingly people of color, people who are poor, and people who for one reason or several are marginalized in our society.

I grew up in a family that ardently supported George Wallace's campaign for president. My eighth grade Texas History teacher spent a week on the post Civil War reconstruction, explaining to us how beneficial the Klu Klux Klan was to our communities. So I fully appreciate the depth of change this election signals for our country. That said, AIDS remains the greatest civil rights issue of our day, fueled at every level by social and economic injustice that remains racist, sexist and homophobic in every way. So celebrate, celebrate, and celebrate some more, and then get out and fight!

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This article was provided by Housing Works. It is a part of the publication Housing Works AIDS Issues Update. Visit Housing Works' website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
See Also
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President Obama and HIV/AIDS

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