Democratic presidential hopeful and spiritual leader Marianne Williamson has made waves with her earnest rhetoric and "politics of love" philosophy. In line with that political mission, which she positions as a response to Donald Trump's "politics of fear," Williamson is now touting her record of AIDS activism in a new interview with the Washington Blade. However, there appears to be some doubt over whether her version of events is the whole truth.
Williamson, who in the interview called her activism "well-documented," founded support organizations in the late 1980s that served people with HIV, including the Los Angeles Center for Living and Project Angel Food.
"I've worked with thousands of people during that time, during the AIDS crisis, spiritual support groups, food, etcetera," Williamson told the Blade. "My connection to that community has been strong and has been going on for a very long time."
Williamson lived in Los Angeles during the 1980s and reflected on what it was like to live in a metropolitan area that was hit especially hard by the early epidemic. "Those of us who did experience it, it imprints them," Williamson said. "I can't even talk about it now and not —" she continued, before becoming emotional and unable to complete the sentence.
Coverage of Williamson on HIV Paints a Murky Picture
While Williamson portrayed her record on HIV as sparkling and her involvement as deep and personal, some have called into question her version of events. In an opinion piece written in the Daily Beast, writer Jay Michaelson raises several qualms with Williamson's record, especially her rhetoric around HIV.
Michaelson notes that Williamson palled around with Louise Hay, a new age entrepreneur who claimed she cured herself of cancer and whose pseudoscience boiled down to fighting illness with self-love and compassion. A 1992 Los Angeles Times expose on Williamson also reported that Williamson had asked Hay to help her create the Los Angeles Center for the Living as a place where the "natural forces of healing" could help clientele.
The expose also recounts a time when Williamson told an HIV-positive man that the "AIDS virus is not more powerful than God." While Michaelson raises the quote without context, the original expose shows that at the time Williamson wasn't talking about treatment of the illness: She was addressing a man who was concerned about how his diagnosis had rocked his steady marriage with his wife.
The Blade spoke to a longtime friend of Williamson's, David Kessler, who attempted to assuage concerns that Williamson is anti-medicine. "I remember Marianne giving men money and taking them to UCLA for the AZT study and giving them money for prescriptions," Kessler said, referring to early studies of Retrovir (AZT, zidovudine), which in 1987 became the first-ever approved HIV medication. "There's no part of Marianne that was anti-medicine."
Kessler also spoke in defense of Williamson's empathy, according to the Blade. He said that Williamson held an AIDS support group in his living room -- although he was not present at the time. He added that she founded Project Angel Food to deliver meals to people with AIDS.
Ongoing Concerns Over Williamson's Stance on Scientific Medicine
Kessler also spoke to the Blade about the biggest controversy so far in Williamson's campaign. She's had to come out several times as "pro-vaccine" and "pro-medicine" after calling vaccines mandates "Orwellian" and "draconian." She has since called the statements a "self-inflicted wound" for her campaign.
"I think my quote unquote, concern over vaccines has been vastly misrepresented," Williamson told the Blade. "I am pro-vaccine. I am also pro-independent scientific research. And I am aware of how often in our country today because of the influence of Big Pharma, independent research through such sources as the Centers for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health [and] so forth, is diminished. I also am never happy with the suppression of independent consultation In the United States."
Adding fuel to the fire of doubt around Williamson's relationship with science are some of Williamson's old tweets, including one that reads: "God is BIG, swine flu SMALL. See every cell of your body filled with divine light. Pour God's love on our immune systems. Truth protects."
Questions Linger Regarding Williamson's Management of HIV/AIDS Service Organizations
The Blade article extensively quotes Kessler in his defense of Williamson -- but it neglects to mention that Kessler served on the board of the Los Angeles Center for Living, the organization Williamson founded in the 1980s that served people with HIV. As the Los Angeles Times expose points out, Williamson was known for her temper as a founder, and the leadership at the center was a revolving door, dismissing three executive directors in a five-year period.
"If you don't agree with Marianne you're not going to be around very long," Dick DeVogeleare, a former executive director who was fired and sued the center, told the Times in 1992. DeVogeleare later settled his suit for breach of contract.
Williamson is one of only a few 2020 candidates who have spoken on the record during the campaign about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in any capacity. Another is California Senator Kamala Harris, who introduced legislation to increase access to PrEP for those most at risk of acquiring HIV.