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Has Obama Already Failed Us on HIV/AIDS? (And Will Yelling Make It Better?)

By Myles Helfand

November 5, 2010

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This article has been cross-posted on HuffingtonPost.com.

Is it somehow "wrong" to protest President Barack Obama on HIV/AIDS? If you have mixed feelings on the question, you're not alone: The HIV community itself is divided over the issue.

We got a rare, but important, public glimpse into that division on POZ.com this week. POZ's editor in chief, Regan Hofmann, and Housing Works' president/CEO, Charles King, both well-known HIV/AIDS advocates, criticized one another over when it's "appropriate" to protest Obama on HIV/AIDS issues. Hofmann, writing the day before mid-term elections swept dozens of congressional Democrats from power, pointed specifically at a few recent examples (university students heckling Obama in Connecticut; Charles King's own outburst during an Obama speech earlier this year) and said that, while she agrees "with the message they were delivering," she disagrees with "the timing and venue they chose."

Hofmann went on to explain her views:

... to be realistic, we are in a recession the likes that no one (not even Obama on the campaign trail) could have seen coming three years ago when those promises were made. That doesn't mean it's okay to break them, or that we should stand silently when they are broken.

But it means that a critical first step in fixing the problem of low levels of funding for global AIDS has to be to support democratic control of government and ensure that the people best poised and most willing to help us maintain their political power. Do you think it's going to get better with Republicans? Then why would you do anything to undermine the Democrats? Even if they have yet to deliver all we hoped for, all they promised? ...

Have they given us everything we want? No. Not by a long shot. But the channels of communication are open and it seems they are willing to try to solve the problems with us. Which is why I was shocked by King's need to yell about his agenda in a room with hundreds of others who had arguably equally valid agendas who had found other ways to communicate them.

And, it's why I was shocked to see the group of AIDS activists confront the president in the midst of him fighting, arguably, for our lives.

In a response posted on POZ.com, King responded that there's no wrong time to protest a U.S. President, regardless of whose "side" he seems to be on or what he's achieved so far:

I disagree that the Democrats are our allies, and that the Republicans are the enemy. Over the years, both parties, at all levels of government have been lackluster in their response to the AIDS epidemic, and both parties have had folk who have risen to the occasion in one way or another to advance prevention and treatment. ...

The real question is the value of a life and whether we believe that saving lives of people with AIDS is just as important as saving banks, saving GM, or waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is not the Republicans that have been making those choices over the last two years, and as people living with AIDS and HIV, we shouldn't buy into the false dichotomy of people with AIDS versus the economy. I would be crying tears for the Democrats if they were going down for saving people's lives. But they are going down for saving Wall Street! ...

The truth is that the activism that has saved millions of lives around the globe has always been unpopular and controversial. But it has laid the issues squarely on the table and forced elected officials to respond. As long as there are pretty receptions and happy pep rallies, some of us are going to keep on being the skunk at the party.

It's unusual, and refreshing, to see this kind of conversation happen in a public forum. HIV/AIDS advocacy has felt stagnant to many within the community for a long time now, and discussions such as these are critical for us to figure out the best way to move forward -- and for us to coordinate and support each other in those efforts.

But Hofmann's and King's disagreement isn't just over the timing of protests. There's a reason this kind of discussion didn't happen during the George W. Bush administration, despite widespread despair over Bush's utter lack of attention to the HIV/AIDS epidemic within the U.S. Hofmann's post betrays a deep disappointment not just in the government, but in Obama -- a growing sense that he may not be anything close to the panacea that she, and many others in the U.S. HIV/AIDS community, had hoped he would be when he took office.

King, by contrast, wasn't sold on Obama to begin with. The day after Obama won the presidential election in 2008, he wrote:

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.

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See Also
Advocates Urge Obama to Address HIV in the U.S.
President Obama and HIV/AIDS
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