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HIV, Ignorance and Bigotry Take Center Stage During Iowa State Senate Race

By Kellee Terrell

September 10, 2010

What began as an HIV awareness campaign in Iowa has turned into a nasty public argument featuring a gay state senator, his Republican opponent and a conservative radio host.

Dave Leach, a Republican candidate for Iowa's state senate, spoke out earlier this summer against his opponent, openly gay incumbent Democrat Matt McCoy, for being part of an HIV awareness campaign earlier this year, reports The Des Moines Register. In the commercial and billboard campaign, McCoy (who is reportedly HIV negative) says, "HIV won't stop me from shaking hands with my constituents." The campaign was created by the Iowa HIV Alliance, a group dedicated to lessening HIV-related stigma.

Leach claimed McCoy's message was confusing and said that he falls out of his chair every time he sees it. When asked if it mattered if McCoy were HIV positive, Leach told the Register, "'I wouldn't say that is [sic] a man is disqualified from serving in the Legislature because he has a disease,' but 'homosexuality ought to be restrained by law.'"

And even though it is common knowledge that HIV cannot be transmitted through casual contact, Leach said he was appalled that McCoy has no issue transmitting the disease to others by shaking their hands. "I've talked to others who also perceived that," he said.

The ads, which debuted this past February, have been seen on two local television stations. They also feature other local figures, including Bankers Trust CEO Suku Radia, Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie, the Rev. Mark Stringer, Des Moines Register columnist Rekha Basu, retired businessman David Hurd, and a number of people who are living with HIV.

When asked if he is living with HIV, McCoy said that he would not confirm or deny -- for a reason. "We don't care if people think we do or don't. The point is we're just about destigmatizing this disease, and ultimately creating conversation and awareness about it."

It's somewhat unclear as to why Leach decided to bring this issue to light now. If his aim was to make it a central issue in the state senate campaign, then he appears to have succeeded: While HIV and senate races may seem like strange bedfellows, this issue has played a role in the campaign thus far -- as has homophobia. On Leach's campaign Web site, he refers to McCoy as a "marriage-diluting sodomite."

And then there were the controversial comments that popular conservative radio host Jan Mickelson made about gay men and HIV/AIDS in August. The Iowa Independent wrote:

Mickelson said on the air that AIDS discriminates against people who engage in "stupid behavior," and since homosexuality is a "sexual disorder" that violates natural law, it "isn't rocket science" to conclude AIDS discriminates against homosexuals. The statement drew immediate outrage from LGBT-rights organizations One Iowa and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), who demanded WHO-AM's parent company -- Clear Channel Communications Inc. -- rebuke the host.

In a statement read shortly before Mickelson's program began last week, Clear Channel did just that, saying Mickelson's statements "confused strong opinion with medical fact, and contained factual errors regarding HIV/AIDS, its spread and current efforts to inform the public about this disease."

To address this issue, McCoy told The Des Moines Register on Sept. 1 that he is planning to organize a boycott against any companies that advertise on Mickelson's show. His first target is the same company that sold him the car that he drives: Toyota of Des Moines. He said, "I think Toyota of Des Moines is a perfectly fine dealership. I just think they shouldn't have a chief bigot as their spokesperson."

To address Leach's current comments about the anti-stigma ad, Iowa HIV Alliance issued a press release. In it, Rhea Van Brocklin, the organization's chairperson, stated:

The purpose of the campaign is to raise awareness about the impact of HIV/AIDS stigma and to inspire communities and individuals to increase their knowledge and decrease their misconceptions about HIV/AIDS. Comments recently made on the radio and on the internet only helped to strengthen the Alliance's cause, as those comments showed great misinformation about HIV and the vilification attached to how some people become infected. The Alliance applauds the efforts of community members like our campaign spokespersons and others who take on the charge of starting the conversation about this important issue. Negative feedback given by opponents of the campaign actually helps open the door to having those discussions.

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 2.

Kellee Terrell is's former news editor.

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