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With Friends Like These: Dr. Monica Sweeney's Gift to the Religious Right

By fogcityjohn

April 22, 2011

Politics makes strange bedfellows.

-- Charles Dudley Warner

People who know me well know that when I argue, I like to win. If I make a prediction about something, I usually like it when events later prove me right. Usually. Sometimes, though, I'd really much prefer to be proved wrong. This is one of those times.

My last post here concerned a controversial public service announcement (PSA) put out by the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYC DOHMH) entitled "It's Never Just HIV." After the PSA was broadcast, GLAAD and GMHC condemned it as "sensationalistic and stigmatizing." They objected because the PSA "portray[s] gay and bisexual men as dispensing diseases," and thus "promotes stigma and stereotype," the perpetuation of which would only "harm gay and bisexual men." And GLAAD and GMHC were hardly alone in their criticism.


Dr. Monica Sweeney, NYC DOHMH's Assistant Commissioner for the Bureau of HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control, was unmoved. She claimed, "Silence is no solution when the annual number of new HIV diagnoses among young MSM [men who have sex with other men] is up by 50 percent in eight years," and argued that media, even when dealing with topics like HIV/AIDS, are not responsible for people's feelings. (Of course, no one is asking Dr. Sweeney to be silent, we're just asking her not to participate in the further stigmatization of gay and bisexual men, but I digress ...)

In my post, I explained why I think the PSA is homophobic. I concluded by noting that one of the unintended consequences of Dr. Sweeney's PSA was that it was being used by people on the political and religious right to justify antigay legislation. I pointed to the example of Bryan Fischer of the American Family Alliance, and I predicted that "Fischer is unlikely to be the only right-winger who'll cite the NYC DOHMH's ad to justify his homophobia."

Unfortunately, it turns out I was right. The latest example of the harm this PSA can do comes from prominent Iowa right-winger Bob Vander Plaats. Vander Plaats heads an outfit called the Family Leader, which opposes same-sex marriage. According to its web site, the Family Leader "affirms sexual relations within the bond of marriage, and opposes distortions of sexuality or special rights to those practicing distorted sexual behavior." While he failed in his gubernatorial bid in Iowa, Vander Plaats was instrumental in the successful campaign to oust three Iowa Supreme Court justices who had voted to grant same-sex couples the right to marry.

So how does Vander Plaats justify his opposition to marriage equality for gays and lesbians? Easy. Vander Plaats says that homosexuality is a public health threat akin to secondhand smoke. And who does Vander Plaats cite as authority for this outrageous claim? You guessed it -- Monica Sweeney's agency, the NYC DOHMH:

Vander Plaats: [Homosexuality] is a public health risk.

Keyes: A public health risk akin to, for instance, secondhand smoke and secondhand smoking?

Vander Plaats: When you take a look at it, this isn't the Family Leader, but say the New York Health Department. They've put out an ad basically highlighting all the dangers of the homosexual lifestyle, that you're this many times more to get this particular disease or this many times more to get this other type of disease. Now, they conclude with "practice safe sex." But they're almost taking our talking points. Because anybody, the Journal of Medicine will back us up on this, that this is a risky lifestyle, health risk lifestyle. If we're teaching the kids, "don't smoke, because that's a risky health style," the same can be true of the homosexual lifestyle. That's why I think we need to speak the truth once in a while.

I disagree with Vander Plaats on pretty much everything, but he's spot on when he says that NYC DOHMH is almost taking right-wing talking points in its PSA. And Vander Plaats and his friends on the right could hardly have hoped for a better "ally" than Monica Sweeney. They can point to her and say, "See, even public health professionals in ultra-liberal New York City agree that homosexuality is an unhealthy and dangerous lifestyle." In short, Dr. Sweeney and the NYC DOHMH have lent their credibility to a bunch of homophobes and given these wingers the perfect political cover. She and NYC DOHMH are now unwittingly playing a supporting role in the fight against equality for gays and lesbians.

I don't expect any of this to change Monica Sweeney's mind. She's already dismissed the concerns of a respected LGBT rights organization like GLAAD and of New York's foremost AIDS service organization. Confronted with complaints from actual gay people about how stigmatizing her PSA is, she simply chose to dig in her heels.

Dr. Sweeney would doubtless fall back on the justification that a little homophobia doesn't hurt when the goal is to reduce HIV transmission rates among MSM. But now that it's clear that NYC DOHMH's PSA is being used to justify antigay legislation, perhaps Dr. Sweeney should consider that the end does not always justify the means.

(H/T to Pam Spaulding at Pam's House Blend for bringing this story to my attention.)

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See Also
More Views on HIV Prevention Policy in the U.S. Northeast

Reader Comments:

Comment by: MJ (New York) Mon., Jun. 24, 2013 at 12:06 pm UTC
I know this is an old post, but I found it on a little google jaunt. Just wanted to let you know Monica Sweeney is leaving the city health department. GOOD RIDDANCE.
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Comment by: Doug S. (Hamilton ON) Thu., Jun. 9, 2011 at 8:08 am UTC
Although it isn't HIV specific, I'd like to point to a brilliantly planned and executed public health campaign that truly engages its target audience and provides education (without moral blame). I think it is a campaign that is remarkable for its creativity and honesty. It also complies with all of the moral principles of decision-making (see comment to previous fogcityjohn blog). Check out the following links:

Nothing pleases everyone, and there will be criticisms. In these blog exchanges some criticisms are fair while others are simply malicious. The internet allows us to avoid face-to-face encounters, making cruelty easier to accomplish and allowing perpetrators to be distanced from their acts (it seems that some politicians have a particular aptitude for distancing themselves from their collateral damage). But see if you aren't tempted to pass these links to your cohorts/friends for viewing.
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Comment by: fogcityjohn (San Francisco, CA) Sat., Jun. 11, 2011 at 10:05 pm UTC
@ Doug S.: Thanks for the links. I think they demonstrate that accurate and engaging public health ads can be done without stigmatizing the targeted audience. Naturally, though, they're Canadian. It seems much harder to do such things here in the U.S.

Comment by: John-Manuel Andriote (Norwich, CT) Thu., Apr. 28, 2011 at 8:06 pm UTC

Thank you for continuing to shine the spotlight of truth on Dr. Sweeney's homophobic campaign. It worked, but only briefly, in the earliest years of the HIV epidemic to terrify gay men into using condoms, even celibacy. It hasn't worked since gay men began to get tested for HIV, starting in 1985, and to be able to "sero-sort" in their choices of partners and specific sexual behaviors. A big part of the problem is the foolishness of choosing to engage in high-risk behaviors with partners whose HIV status is unknown.

I know of only a few short-lived public education campaigns that have attempted to build gay men's self-respect and build on our resilience. Yet that is the approach that prevention researchers and educators I've interviewed say MUST be supported if we are ever going to see a real drop in the outrageously high number of gay and bisexual men of all races in America who become infected with HIV each year.

I wrote my own response to Dr. Sweeney's destructive campaign in a brief essay here:

Keep up the good work, and thank you again.
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Comment by: Leon (South London) Sun., Apr. 24, 2011 at 7:31 am UTC
SO if we can't speak about the many problems linked to HIV (because YES it is not just about HIV), what do we tell gay men so that they protect themselves? Water-lilly fairy tales about loving each other and respecting themselves hoping that when times come they will actually DO something to protect themselves and their partners?
But when Gay men have little respect for themselves because of stigma and discrimination how can we ask them to behave responsably?
You know what? telling MSM time and again that they are stigmatised and discriminated against DOES NOT help!
Replace homosexuality by obesity, cancer or any lifestyle diseases you want and you would get the same message. Falling for that argument is a disservice for MSM. Just tell the Right to get lost and focus on the issue: unending and growing number of MSM who are getting infected because, it has become "just HIV", and a pill a day, after or before will keep it at bay. As if...


And that's the problem.
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Comment by: fogcityjohn (San Francisco, CA) Mon., Apr. 25, 2011 at 1:07 pm UTC
@ Leon: I'm not entirely sure I understand your argument. I'm not suggesting that we can't or shouldn't speak about HIV and its health implications. As our editor Kellee Terrell has explained, however, this PSA does a poor job of that from a purely factual standpoint. You're much closer to the real problem in your second paragraph when you ask how we can expect gay men to behave responsibly in the face of stigma and discrimination. That's why I favor the structural prevention approach used in countries like Germany, which emphasize combatting homophobia and dismantling barriers to gay men's (and other risk groups') equal participation in society.

Finally, your suggestion that we should just "tell the Right to get lost" reflects a very poor understanding of American politics. You might have that luxury in Britain, but it simply doesn't exist here. The political right continues to exert an extremely powerful influence on American policy regarding HIV. You may not know it, but since the 1980s, federal law has made it illegal for organizations receiving federal funding to create or distribute HIV prevention materials that in any way "promote" sexual activity. The law was directed specifically at HIV education materials targeting gay men. The consequence is that many organizations are trying to educate people about a sexually transmitted infection without running afoul of a prohibition on "promoting" sexual activity. The right has also opposed proven prevention techniques such as needle exchange programs for injection drug users. Funding for them was outlawed until recently. So when you advise us simply to ignore the right, please understand that political circumstances on this side of the pond make that utterly impossible. You live in a saner country. Count your blessings.
Comment by: John E (St. Louis, MO) Wed., Apr. 27, 2011 at 11:06 am UTC
Leon tips his hand when he writes "Replace homosexuality by obesity, cancer or any lifestyle diseases you want and you would get the same message." Fact is, Leon, Monica, and many on the far right see homosexuality exactly that way - as a "lifestyle disease" that must be eradicated or cured. HIV infection is a disease, but not a "lifestyle disease." Homosexuality is neither a lifestyle nor a disease. It is a part of the spectrum of human characteristics, like being left-handed. Monica's sinister ad campaign is a hate crime, nothing more nor less. Why isn't it being investigated and prosecuted? Taxpayer-funded gay-bashing must end, whether by First Amendment remedies or by Second Amendment remedies.

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Outlier: My Unusual Journey With HIV



My name's John. I'm 49 years old. I'm a lawyer by profession. I now live in beautiful San Francisco, California, after spending a long time on the east coast. I was diagnosed in 2004, so I've been positive for something like five years.

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