I’m proud to have spent 21 years working in the HIV arena. Currently I'm the science reporter for POZ magazine, a publication for people living with HIV. So naturally people have been eager for my opinion about Hillary Clinton's shocking gaffe in which she praised Nancy and Ronald Reagan for their efforts with regards to AIDS. Yes, I am deeply disappointed in my candidate of choice, and I have many questions I wish she'd answer. How in the world could she have been unaware of what to most gays is burned into our minds: that the Reagans were complicit in the murder of gay men throughout the 1980s, thanks to the cold shoulder they gave. Just imagine all the wonderful, creative, loving, influential people who would be alive today if the U.S. response to AIDS had been urgent and immediate instead of criminally delayed.
Nevertheless, I still stand firm in my support of Hillary's candidacy for president. I think she is far and away the best candidate for the job. Never in history has a candidate been so thoroughly and uniquely prepared to be president and commander in chief. Also, I know that she is a fierce advocate not only for the LGBT cause, but in the HIV fight as well.
We rightfully criticize Hillary for not knowing her AIDS history. But by summarily dismissing her as a candidate for this grave error, people only demonstrate their own profound ignorance of Hillary's history where HIV is concerned. I for one cannot and I will not take what Hillary said in isolation. I beg of people to look at the big picture with regards to Hillary's record, and to consider how fervently she has promised to fight for the HIV cause as president.
Hillary, Bill and Chelsea Clinton are all among the most dedicated and influential advocates the world has in the fight against HIV. It was Hillary Clinton herself who introduced the term "AIDS-free generation" into the lexicon while she was secretary of state, calling for a concerted effort to turn the tide of the HIV epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa.
Bill Clinton was instrumental in negotiating huge price cuts for HIV medications in poorer nations in the 2000s. As recently as the early part of that decade, high-level health officials doubted if it was even feasible to provide antiretroviral treatment to sub-Saharan Africans (one official famously balked that Africans couldn't tell time, so how could they be trusted to follow a complex pill regimen). Bill knew they were wrong. Millions of lives have been saved. Millions. An entire continent has been rescued for certain ruin.
At the Clinton Foundation, fighting HIV is one of the core initiatives. This puts the Clintons right up there with Bill Gates in their powerful and positive influence on the global pandemic.
Considering her and her family's steeped involvement in HIV, it really does beg the question of how Hillary could not have known her AIDS history where the Reagans are concerned. I wish I had a sense of why she did not seem to know this fact. But I can imagine she was worn out from endless campaigning, and here she is, live on TV, speaking about the cuff, trying to think of nice things to say about a couple whose legacy she has long fought to undo. Who among us might not start babbling nonsense at a time like that?
Guess what, Hillary's human.
The Clintons have made mistakes (the 1994 crime bill, which they've said was a grave mistake), they're deeply flawed people. But I genuinely believe they want to make the world a better, healthier place.
So just you remember all these facts should you ever find yourself salivating over a new, flashy reason to engage in the national pastime of trashing the Clintons. It's time we as a public stopped falling prey to the dopamine rush we get from reveling in the outrage of the day. Is time we tried to see the larger picture about all these incendiary topics that course through our Facebook feeds. And it's time we considered that picking the Clintons to death is really a sad, mass-hysterical fad. It's one that is driven by the Republican attack machine. It pains me deeply when I see leftists eagerly going along with that kind of reason-free mob mentality. Hillary deserves our criticism about what she said about the Reagans. But she does not deserve to be utterly eviscerated.
Hillary's campaign released this statement shortly after her blunder on Friday: "While the Reagans were strong advocates for stem cell research and finding a cure for Alzheimer's disease, I misspoke about their record on HIV and AIDS. For that I am sorry.”
The campaign has since also pointed to her numerous contributions to the HIV fight, including:
- In 1992, for the first time ever, the DNC Convention highlighted the AIDS plague and Bill and Hillary Clinton discussed the need to cure the AIDS plague in this country.
- As First Lady, Clinton traveled the world to raise awareness on combating AIDS and assembled government officials and world leaders to discuss how to enhance and coordinate AIDS efforts.
- As Senator, Clinton introduced and voted for legislation to improve and expand global AIDS research and assistance, improve global AIDS programs for women and girls, and prevention and education services.
- As Secretary of State, Clinton began an ambitious campaign to usher in an AIDS-free generation, focusing on improvements in treatment and prevention practices.
Also, HillaryClinton.com has a solid HIV platform in its LGBT section, and has since last fall. She even supports pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), in which people at risk for HIV take a daily antiretroviral tablet, Truvada, to protect themselves against the virus. This is Hillary acknowledging that gay men have condomless sex. This her saying, "Boys, I know you want to go out and have fun, but let's talk harm reduction first." That in and of itself is completely awesome, that a presidential candidate would take a stand on a controversial topic such as this.
As for an HIV platform on BernieSanders.com, there isn't one. [Update: He added one the day after Hillary's gaffe. Mad props to Kenneth Walsh for figuring that one out.]
Hillary's HIV platform is as follows:
- Call on Republican governors to extend Medicaid coverage to provide life-saving health care to people living with HIV. Clinton believes that every state should extend Medicaid coverage to provide life-saving health care to people living with HIV.
- Cap out-of pocket expenses for people with HIV/AIDS. Clinton has announced a plan to hold the pharmaceutical industry accountable and to achieve lower drug costs for Americans, including for medications that help treat HIV and reduce the risk of contracting AIDS. Clinton will ensure that Americans can get the care their doctors prescribe by requiring health insurance plans to cap covered out-of-pocket prescription drug costs at $250. She also will allow Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices and will stop direct-to-consumer advertising subsidies for drug companies—reinvesting those funds in research.
- Expand the utilization of HIV prevention medications, including pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). While we work to diagnose and treat all Americans with HIV and AIDS, we also must work to prevent exposure. Decades of research are beginning to offer a promising path to prevention. Clinton will increase the CDC investment to ensure populations at greatest risk of infection have access to the drug, and encourage states to follow suit."
Many have called for Hillary to do much more to apologize for what she said about Nancy Reagan, to denounce the former first lady through and through, really put her through the ringer. Consider, though, the very fine line that Hillary is on. Can you imagine how much worse this imbroglio would get if a former first lady went on TV to trash her predecessor shortly after the woman's funeral? It's just not going to happen.
Hopefully Hillary will find more ways in the weeks ahead to make amends, to better educate herself, and to better communicate what a friend she is to LGBT people and the HIV cause. Note, though, that LGBT people are a part of her stump speech. We're woven into her campaign materials and videos. I know, because I've heard her speak live three times since last summer and every time she's stressed very strongly how she wants to fight for us. Here's hoping she gets behind the HIV fight even more forcefully. Yes, she needs to make amends with us. I hope people will be receptive to her doing so should she make the effort.
I know that gay men are hurt, I know we're surprised and disappointed. Hillary let us down with her ignorance. But please consider that she has not let us down in the long run when it comes to HIV. We need her. We need her to continue the work she's long been doing to fight HIV. And that means fighting for gay men, for their health, dignity and place in this world.
Please consider contributing to Hillary's campaign. She needs our support: click here.
Also, New Yorkers, come to the LGBT "Little Tuesday" primary party at Therapy, Tues. March 15, from 6:30pm to 11pm. You need to RSVP, it will sell out. $20 donation. Click here for info.
If you'd like to see more of my writing about HIV, click here.
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Update: Late on March 12, Hillary published this much more fleshed out apology.
Benjamin Ryan is editor at large at POZ magazine and its sister publication Hep, where I cover the science of HIV and hepatitis C. My work has also appeared in The New York Times, New York, The New York Observer, The Nation, The Atlantic, The Marshall Project, Men’s Journal, Out and The Advocate. www.benryan.net