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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

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 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, 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

Reader Comments:

Comment by: Frederick Wright (Tampa, FL) Wed., Dec. 29, 2010 at 9:28 pm UTC
My hat goes off to Charles King in his voice for social justice and that is the differents between an advocate and a activist, clearly to me Mr. King is an activist and Ms Hoffman is an advocate, which both are a good thing. The poz community needs to wake up to relize a President is part of a machine build on compremise and half truths. One side has their half of truth and the other has their half of the truth, or one truth for another truth. Now that I am getting older I more about peace and problem solving and the endless game of asking for more money is over, get that, for now we must unite and conserve, get back to work, pray together and find positive solutions other than thinking more money is the solution. How about less expensive drugs, better personal health habits, better volunteer prevention message or a community caring and helping the community, past HIV for the many. Yes like loving ones neighbors, sharing and forgiving all the past fight and mis justices. I personal pray for my President in the past and now to stay in the fight and do the best He can for all the people, including HIV folks. Frederick Wright GNP+USA
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Comment by: Sal (bronx) Wed., Dec. 15, 2010 at 12:53 pm UTC
i read it three times and still didn't understand the point.
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Comment by: Sue Saltmarsh (Chicago, IL) Thu., Nov. 11, 2010 at 3:12 pm UTC
I think we, and most of America, are missing another DUH moment here. Barack Obama is ONE MAN. NO president of any party can create, pass, and enact laws all by himself. If Mr. King has sincere doubts about Obama the man's concern about HIV/AIDS, I'd ask him to remember that this man is the only known president to have been tested for HIV; the only president that came up with a national strategy, however flawed, and, as Ms Regan says, he is dealing with financial realities that no president since FDR has had to deal with.

All through my childhood, whenever I talked with my mouth full or put my elbows on the table or , heaven forbid, burped, my mother would admonish me with, "You would never do that at the White House, would you?" Until Nixon, the respect I had for whoever was president elicited a sheepish, "No, Mom, sorry."

I glory in having a president I can respect as much as I used to back then. I glory in having a president that does not say "nucular" and who has brought at least some, if not most, of the world's respect back to the U.S.

Has my life gotten better since he was elected? No. As a single payer supporter, I abhor the corrupt mess we got with health care "reform," but I also know that it is NOT what he wanted either. I know that if it was solely up to him DADT and DOMA would be history and ADAP would be fully, vigorously funded.

But here's the thing - it's not up to him. And the American electorate just kicked him in the ass by adopting the "I'll show HIM and not vote!" attitude that left the ballot boxes to Republicans to dominate. And what will that action get us?

Does anyone in the HIV community actually think Mitch McConnell or John Boehner or Mark Kirk or Rand Paul gives a crap about our little corner of the world? And, really, Mr. King, do you think we'd be so much better off if John McCain and SARAH PALIN were in office?

We need to stop bitching and whining and start realizing what we HAVE before we lose it.
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Comment by: America The Generous (Voice of Discontent) Wed., Nov. 10, 2010 at 5:45 pm UTC
With so many things on the table right now (Socialized Medicine, Unemployment, Economy)and the current state of our union couldn't we just for once consider the needs of Americans before pouring our HIV dollars elsewhere? While my heart goes out to everyone living and dying with HIV (I am POZ Myself)I just feel our own citizens should be able to live with it first. I am proud I live in a country that can produce things like PEPFAR (George got that right) which continues to save lives in much needed areas. As far as politicians are concerned I think they should have to live by the same "Truth in Advertising" laws the private sector does. Neither party seems to mind having blood on their hands over this issue.

The backlash seen in the last election is simply a bunch of people tired of having their country taken from them and given away. The sad part of it all is that we probably already pay enough in tax's to support socialized medicine. It is all just embezzled and unaccounted for in that huge organization with the US Government Seal.
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Comment by: meikil (tucson, az) Sat., Nov. 6, 2010 at 12:53 pm UTC
like many, i have been working/volunteering my energy to inform, enlighten, and prevent new cases of HIV/AIDS. I am saddened by the plight of those who are living with the virus and those affected by HIV/AIDS, fighting along side those who might oppose who i am, but are in common goal regarding positive people and the government addressing the needs of everyone affected by HIV. i am determined to make a difference on behalf of all i have lost and all who are living positive. services have been cut here as elsewhere and i am darned mad about it. the dilemma for me is that i represent so much of what is wrong with our society that i get tired, so tired of fighting. i am committed to treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS as I am to ending violence against women & children; caring for the mentally ill; and civil rights for everyone in this country (i.e. glbt, aliens (legal/illegal), and the economically impoverished. we need help here in the desert. we need to address the controveries by finding viable solutions to solve social illnesses and end economic discrimination. my 96 yoa nanna told me that charity begins at home. i have always believed my grandmother to be wise and just. i wish more people believed as she did. we need to take care of home and all of us who live here in USA. i am one of those who receives a food box a month; whose disability income does not last through the month; whose medical bills outweigh proper diet each month; whose experience with child abuse, incest, domestic violence, rape, HIV/AIDS, has lead to suffering mental dis-ease (all of which funds have been cut). Let us all get together on spreading the wealth this country perpetrates, so that there are no more funding cuts, and poor people, like myself, can eat healthy every day of the month. The needs are many, but this country is great. if we share and care, we can all benefit greatly by acts of love. i work/volunteer for those less fortunate since 1980. we need help. we need it now!
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