Why Elton John Owes Black People an Apology After AIDS 2018 Remarks

Elton John at AIDS 2018 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands
International AIDS Society/Marten van Dijl

Like 15,000 other HIV advocates, providers, and researchers, I am just off the heels of attending the 22nd AIDS 2018 conference hosted by the International AIDS Society in Amsterdam. As I arrived at Schiphol airport, donning a "Silence=Death" t-shirt in homage to ACT UP and ready to experience all that the conference and Amsterdam had to offer, I never would have imagined that on just the second day of the conference I would bear witness to the silencing of black gay men's voices and an affront to the experiences of black people across the diaspora -- perpetrated by none other than Elton John and his foundation.

With the honor of attending such an important meeting comes not only accountability to the communities from which we hail as conference delegates, but also a responsibility to ensure that individuals speaking to our communities' issues do so respectfully and with the cultural humility it behooves any of us to model whenever occupying a critical world stage. Thus, I would be remiss not to shine a light on Elton John's problematic remarks during a session focused on combating worldwide HIV- and LGBTQIA-related stigma, in which he patronizingly admonished black people for not loving each other enough, and in which he called out black American celebrities for allegedly not doing enough to fight stigma globally among black communities.

A Focus on Key Populations

The session was organized by the Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF) and was intended, or so it initially seemed, to highlight the perilous circumstances that black people in Africa live under due to HIV- and LGBTQIA-related stigma. As we saw in a series of powerful photographs from a recent opinion piece by Elton John in the New York Times, and as we learned from numerous art exhibits and educational booths at the AIDS 2018 Global Village, for many LGBTQIA African people and other socially marginalized groups across the globe living with HIV, stigma commonly manifests as heinous, often fatal cases of violence. While the vulnerability captured within these photographs -- on which Elton John was subsequently invited to reflect during the session in Amsterdam -- was palpable, perhaps what was most remarkable about them was the overwhelming power of human connection and radical love conveyed through the intertwining of black bodies.

For those of us in the room seeing these photographs and watching a video that included testimonies of African people living with HIV and LGBTQIA people, it was impossible not to feel compelled to action, not only to address stigma and discrimination in Africa but in all countries from which we hailed as delegates, including the United States.

In the past two years alone in the U.S., a record number of transgender women of color have been murdered within their own communities, part of an epidemic of violence that extends back for decades. Many of these women's deaths are attributable to gun violence, but media coverage of their deaths is largely drowned out by stories of mass shootings in suburbia.

To this day, HIV criminalization persists in the United States and many parts of the world. Regardless of whether people have a low risk of transmitting HIV, and regardless of whether they have actually disclosed their HIV status to romantic or sexual partners, people can be prosecuted criminally and held liable through civil courts merely for being sexual beings.

Because of the U.S. government's racist, xenophobic, inhumane, and incompetent disaster response, potentially 4,600 people died in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria; as reported at AIDS 2018, this event also had a profound impact on individuals living with HIV and AIDS.

Thus, what appeared to be the intent of the conference session overall was commendable: highlighting the impacts of assaults on the human rights of key populations in the global response to HIV and AIDS. However, midway into the session it became apparent that the event was perhaps intended more to raise funds for -- and to elevate the profile of -- the Elton John AIDS Foundation. When asked to reflect on the photographs and testimonies in the video, Elton John himself issued a call to action that quickly devolved into an oddly framed diatribe, in which he called out black celebrities who, he said, needed to "get off their asses" and start doing more to undermine HIV- and LGBTQIA-related stigma.

It was not his call to action that some attendees took issue with, but rather the glaringly anti-black, low-key racist, tone-deaf manner in which he chose to deliver that message, prompting me and others to voice our disapproval on social media. He put his anti-black attitudes on full display by specifically calling out Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, and Frank Ocean as examples of black celebrities who should pay less attention in their music to their cars and fortunes and pay more attention -- as well as financial support -- to causes addressing stigma because, as he alluded, there are limits to what he can achieve as a white man.

EJAF's Silencing of Community Members' Voices

To add insult to injury, according to attendees who spoke on the condition of anonymity given their relationship to EJAF, the event was highly choreographed to the point that the session moderator refused to take questions in an equitable manner, and the organizers had allegedly even provided pre-prepared statements to some attendees planted in the audience. Several attendees approached the microphones to directly respond to Elton John's reckless comments about black celebrities who "[do] nothing" to help the millions of people (who Elton John repeatedly referred to as "these people") who tragically succumb to persistent assaults on their livelihoods grounded in HIV- and LGBTQIA-related stigma.

One delegate in the audience stood at a microphone for over 30 minutes to address Elton John's comments and was essentially ignored by the session moderator. This person ultimately deferred his opportunity to speak at the microphone to another delegate, a woman who was waiting to speak. Once she was finally called upon, this woman challenged Elton John's misguided comments about black people. She noted very poignantly that, historically, when black people in the U.S. have attempted to mobilize, as the Black Panthers did, to care for one another and divest our resources from oppressive systems in order to invest in programs to uplift our own communities, the U.S. government has strategically undermined these efforts.

In response to Elton John's comments that black people need to begin loving each other more, Marc Thompson, of BlackOut UK and curator of the "Diasporan Dialogues" event during the conference, shared that he was diagnosed with HIV at 17 years old, has been living with the virus for 32 years, and thinks his own survival has been precisely attributable to the love he has received from black people, including other black gay men. By the time the session ended, audience members were decrying as shameful the blatant manner in which community voices were silenced by the event organizers from the EJAF and the session moderator. However, Thompson hopes that this serves as an opportunity for funders such as EJAF to be intentional about supporting participatory action programs spearheaded by leaders who are native to communities highly impacted by HIV and LGBTQIA stigma.

As was noted by another delegate who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, the session amounted to a missed opportunity on the part of the EJAF to have a respectful dialogue and model effective, ethical community engagement. "It was clear to me," he said, "that we were watching a theater production, a very carefully staged act, all of which exposed the fact that nothing we were experiencing in that moment was truly real." Further, he said, "I felt like black gay men were being used to raise funds rather than to truly empower community." Ultimately, the opportunity to elevate community voices during the session was lost.

While there is no denying that Elton John has been one of the more socially conscious charitable millionaires who have donated to the global response to HIV and AIDS, it certainly would have been in his best interests to take comments from audience members, because it would have allowed for a teachable moment of genuine dialogue around effective strategies in the global fight against HIV- and LGBTQIA-related stigma. In the previous five years alone, the Elton John AIDS Foundation has directed over $20 million to global anti-stigma initiatives and projects supporting vulnerable groups. Nonetheless, by no means does Elton John's humanitarian record absolve him of responsibility for checking his privilege at the door, nor does it give him or any other white person the license to criticize any black person for allegedly not contributing enough to causes related to HIV, LGBTQIA rights, or the plethora of social-structural perils and intersectional stigmas that black people face worldwide.

Ironically, Elton John's track record on funding HIV responses from community-based organizations -- in essence for people to be empowered to speak out against the powers that be -- in this instance served as a barrier to elevating community voices of black LGBTQIA people in response to his outlandish comments. Several individuals who were present during the session and approached for comment for this article declined to participate out of concern for how doing so might impact their existing relationship to EJAF or negatively impact their strategic advocacy work. Thus, as someone who was present during the session, I would like to personally address Elton John's anti-black comments.

Black People Loving Each Other Through Intersectional Stigma

Just as black and brown people have survived various forms of intersectional stigma for centuries, so too have we historically contributed more than our fair share to causes of which people at the intersections of multiple oppressions are the primary beneficiaries. To Elton John's misinformed message, many black and brown people -- celebrities or otherwise -- have been donating our time, T cells, and money, championing causes that are cross-cutting in their reach, addressing not solely single-axis issues but rather issues that have direct, nuanced impacts on those within our families, communities, and social networks.

But perhaps he was too self-absorbed by his own humanitarian track record through his foundation that he neglected to acknowledge the tremendous contributions of several black celebrities who have united in the response to AIDS. Many black celebrities, such as recording artist Raheem DeVaughn, have stepped forward to undermine HIV stigma by publicly sharing their experiences being tested for HIV. After the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, a country already struggling in its efforts to fight HIV and AIDS, Jay-Z contributed to the "Hope for Haiti" initiative that raised over $58 million for relief efforts. His wife, Beyoncé, herself has donated to many efforts, including thousands of dollars to relief efforts in Texas and the Caribbean after Hurricanes Harvey and Maria, and most recently to historically black colleges and universities in the United States. At Jay-Z's encouragement, just a few months ago, his mother, Gloria Carter, gave a moving speech while accepting a GLAAD Media Award, in which she shared her own testimony as a black lesbian woman. Surely, Elton John must be aware of the many other black celebrities who have made tremendous contributions to HIV projects and other causes with intersectional global impacts for black and brown people, including Alicia Keys, Wyclef Jean, Akon, and yes, even Kendrick Lamar who, despite receiving a "Generational Icon" award for raising issues affecting his community, Elton John specifically called out for allegedly "[doing] nothing."

Perhaps Elton John is also ignorant of the financial support and labor expended by individuals such as Janet Mock, who produces, writes, and made her directorial debut with Pose (#PoseFX), a show that should be required material for any lesson on the intersections of HIV, poverty, racism, sexism, and homo- and transphobia in the early years of the epidemic. The project is helping to further elevate the ever-increasing profile of a segment of the population -- queer youth of color -- who ironically still suffer from enormous disparities in homelessness, HIV, and mental health despite Hollywood's and mainstream media's growing fascination with our culture to the point of downright appropriation and misrepresentation.

I'm not quite sure how Elton John could've missed it or forgotten, or perhaps he simply doesn't comprehend how the sacrifices of individuals such as Colin Kaepernick over causes such as police brutality and the deaths of black people from "legal intervention" intersect with stigmas experienced by black LGBTQIA people, who are uniquely targeted by the inhumane practices and law enforcement policies not only in the United States but around the world.

Perhaps Elton John even doesn't recognize or refuses to see the correlation between fighting HIV- or LGBTQIA-related stigma and efforts such as the campaign produced by Kenya Moore of The Real Housewives of Atlanta to raise awareness about intimate partner violence. Maybe he is unaware of the strong relationship between HIV and domestic violence, which places HIV-negative individuals at risk for seroconverting and places HIV-positive individuals at risk of becoming victims of violence upon disclosing their status to partners.

Focusing on Key Populations Necessitates Recognition of Privilege and Patriarchy

There is absolutely no denying that millions of people are suffering from HIV- and LGBTQIA-related stigma, being denied basic sociopolitical protections from discrimination and violence in their respective countries or states, and under several current political regimes (e.g., President Trump in the U.S.), are suffering from visible threats to their well-being that are practically endorsed by political leaders and others charged with upholding their human rights. These threats to survival are nothing new to those of us who face intersectional invisibility and stigma within our families, communities, and socio-politically, by virtue of our multiple minority identities related to race/ethnicity, socioeconomic position, gender, sexual identity, disability, or religion. Despite the outrage that has erupted in response to the fascists who currently occupy the highest political offices in the U.S., Russia, and other nations recognized for their violations of human rights, many of us have long remained resilient as we confront intersectional stigma either at the micro-level in our interactions with others or at the macro-level by merely daring to survive the odds stacked against us. We do so amidst policies, practices, and attacks conveying that many heartless people would rather see all black and brown, LGBTQIA, and poz people simply die off.

It was painfully obvious that missing from Elton John's call to action, which in and of itself was well intended (I certainly hope) was an acknowledgement of his own privilege and a recognition of the following: the innumerable factors that perpetuate the stigma, prejudice, discrimination, and violence experienced by people living with HIV and AIDS, LGBTQIA people, black people, and other socially marginalized groups around the world are wrought by our world's blood-stained hands that for centuries have toiled in capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and European and American imperialism. The message that some people's lives are somehow less valuable, less sacred, and thus less worthy of protecting than others is deeply embedded in the psyches and economic policies of individuals and communities from sea to shining sea. The relegation of groups of people to a less protected class is a reflection of the roles that white supremacy and patriarchy continue to play in producing social, health, and economic inequities in every corner of the world.

Elton John's philanthropic call to action was sullied by a lack of cultural humility at best or by implicit anti-black attitudes at worst. If his rant at the International AIDS Conference demonstrates nothing else, it serves as proof-positive of the adage, "all that glitters ain't gold." That is, it represents a quintessential example of neoliberal white gay racism, oft perpetrated by white liberals who, by refusing to lead with an acknowledgement of their own privilege, espouse a savior complex that risks either creating or worsening all sorts of unintended negative sociopolitical or public health consequences. I don't believe that Elton John intended to cause harm by specifically admonishing Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, and Frank Ocean for, in his opinion, not doing enough to combat HIV and LGBTQIA stigma. But as I remind myself and others all the time: Words have consequences! And he should have chosen his words more wisely.

There's a part of me that can't even be mad at Elton John. As I've frequently seen noted on #BlackTwitter, his antics on that panel during AIDS 2018 amounted to what black people have seen play out time and time again: white people "white-people-ing," usually resulting in black people somehow or another being thrown under the bus. In this case, it just so happened to be black celebrities, who in many respects share far more in common with Elton John than anyone attending AIDS 2018. But because I'm rooting for everybody black who also roots for my own survival, I couldn't just silently sit back and watch him black-bash his celebrity friends.

An Apology by Elton John to Black People Is in Order

Based on his dramatic performance on that stage, flanked by an EJAF representative and moderator Erika Castellanos of the Global Actions for Trans Equality, there is no doubt that Elton John was not cognizant in that moment of his own incredible privilege. Nor did he demonstrate enough foresight to consider the dangerous optics of how his judgmental words directed toward black people and black celebrities were juxtaposed with the fact that neither he nor the event planners had even bothered to invite a black person to join them on that world stage.

By no means should the calling out of anti-black undertones in Elton John's rant-like call to action be construed as a detraction from the significance of the psychological, corporal, and structural violence that LGBTQIA people and those of us living with HIV or AIDS experience at the hands of people who look like us and those who do not. Rather, what is just as certain now as it was before Elton John's rant is that, regardless of our race or socioeconomic positions, everyone needs to do more to battle all forms of stigma that continue to threaten the livelihoods of the most marginalized among us. There is certainly room for everyone with the financial means to do so, black celebrities alike, to contribute toward global anti-stigma efforts. We can expect this to be true even after a cure for HIV is discovered, a topic on which I just so happened to have had the amazing privilege to present during this year's AIDS 2018 conference.

All of this also begs the question: Since anti-black racism, including of the internalized variety, is at the core of much of what's wrong with the world, what then is the cure to anti-black racism? The answer, I would say, is calling it out each and every time it rears its ugly head, as it did during Elton John's comments. And, for that, he owes an apology to black people everywhere, including his black celebrity friends.

Cheriko (Riko) A. Boone, M.S.W., M.P.H., is a Ph.D. student in applied social psychology at The George Washington University, where he conducts research on intersectionality; social-structural barriers to physical and mental health among racial/ethnic, sexual, and gender minorities; and psychosocial and structural influences on participation in biomedical HIV clinical trials among these populations. Currently, Boone is the co-chair of community engagement for BELIEVE, one of six National Institutes of Health-funded Martin Delaney Collaboratory sites conducting research to develop cellular and genetic therapies for the cure of HIV.