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

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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