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Before the session even opened, a group of fundamentalist Muslim states blackballed the single gay speaker

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Secretary-general of the UN Kofi Annan (c), Harri Holkeri (r) of Finland and UNAIDS czar Dr. Peter Piot (l) stiffly display an AIDS memorial quilt. June 25, 2001. Peter Morgan

Beating the Gay Stigma of AIDS

by Kelly Cogswell

JUNE 28, 2001. Twenty years into the AIDS epidemic, the United Nations finally held a special session on HIV and AIDS. For what it's worth. Before the session even opened, a group of fundamentalist Muslim states blackballed the single gay speaker scheduled for a round table discussion about human rights and AIDS.

When a resolution was introduced at the General Assembly to let her participate, almost a third of the member nations were willing to boycott the vote and derail the entire session, rather than have a known queer in their midst. Activists told reporters at a press conference this week that, as an unintended side effect, the controversy brought lesbian and gay issues to the floor of the General Assembly for the first time.

Karyn Kaplan of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) was finally allowed to participate, though Kaplan, and IGLHRC's Scott Long, were quick to say it wasn't just a victory for lesbians and gay men, but a "victory for openness" at the UN, which has been reluctant to allow participation by outside groups.

In fact, given the nature of Kaplan's remarks to the round table, it wasn't a gay victory at all. Except for the name of her organization, her statement was entirely "lesbian" and "gay" free. Kaplan was endorsing a "rights-based approach to HIV/AIDS," with only a few sanitized code words deploring "gender-based discrimination and homophobia..." that any well-meaning straight person could have mouthed.

I would have preferred stronger language given that queers were about to be erased from the UN AIDS declaration. Bigoted or enabling member states diluted the language of the final draft until it became so abstract as to be virtually meaningless. Men who have sex with men (already watered down) became those who are at risk due to "sexual practice." Prostitutes became those vulnerable to infection due to "livelihood," and prisoners surreally were referred to as those made vulnerable through "institutional location."

By downplaying or erasing queers, both gay activists, as well as Muslim fundamentalists and their Catholic Latin American allies, among others, miss a part of the solution to AIDS that is as basic and essential as Joseph Lister's revolutionary idea for surgeons to wash their hands and clean their instruments.

Like it or not, AIDS is all about queers. If it isn't queers getting AIDS or fighting it, it's about AIDS being stigmatized as queer. And as long as AIDS has a queer stigma, men who identify as straight (whether they are or not) won't bother with condoms; people will go untested because they think they can't get it, or they're afraid they will be targets of anti-AIDS and homophobic violence if they do, which means treatment will go unused (if it's available), and many more thousands of lives will be lost in great misery and suffering.

In a June 19 Washington Post article about AIDS in the hard-hit Caribbean, Claudette Harry, a Guyanese physician who heads the Pan American Health Organization, was quoted as saying, "Just about anybody can tell you how you get it and how you prevent it." The problem is, she went on, most people believe it only happens to deviant "others."

You could come up with similar quotes from health workers in Africa, Asia, Los Angeles, or New York City where an AIDS prevention ad was just yanked from Bronx bus shelters after complaints. The chaste poster shows two men, one with his arm draped around the other. The caption reads "I'm not gay, but I sometimes have sex with other guys. People don't understand." Apparently not. This ad was trying to reach mentally closeted men of color in New York City where the infection rate of black homosexual and bisexual men is about the same as it is in Sub-Saharan Africa.

A great many AIDS activists seem to think the solution to the queer stigma is a couple billion dollars and another decade or two to persuade the homophobic world that AIDS is not a gay disease. In the current issue of The Nation, Richard Kim congratulates ACT-UP for not marching in New York City's gay pride parade this year and instead sponsoring the Stop Global AIDS Now rally, as if it were an either/or choice. IGLHRC dared not declare a gay victory for earning the right to speak at the UN.

But by eclipsing their queer roots as they broaden their message, AIDS activists are themselves reinforcing the gay stigma. Worse, they discard with the bathwater the amazingly successful model of mostly white gay AIDS activism, which in the 80's blended education, political action, and pushes for research with consciousness-raising and a drive for gay rights.

If the ACT-UP of the 80's mostly had an impact on white gay men, it wasn't because the model failed. It simply didn't go far enough. The institutions actively targeted were white icons: white Catholic St. Patrick's Cathedral, white government officials, white scientists, and white corporations. Marches were held down white Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Black churches and other institutions shaping communities of color were left largely untouched, with homophobia intact.

The lesson remains: AIDS education is far more effective if you accompany it with the basics, washing minds clean of homophobia and hate. The only way to lift the stigma from HIV/AIDS is to lift it from queers.

Related links:

For comments by IGLHRC on the UN ban.

For Excerpts From U.N. AIDS Declaration.

For A Beacon of Hope in Africa's Fight Against AIDS, a look at how the Muslim nation of Senegal leads Africa in combating AIDS.

For a look at Dr. Joseph Lister: Medical Revolutionary.

For Complete Coverage Gay Mundo

For Complete Coverage Race and Class

Gay Mundo
gay pride The Gully's ultragay coverage. Includes musings on activism, info on queers from Taiwan to Puerto Rico and more.

Color and Cash
race and classThe Gully's complete coverage of race and class, two intertwined pillars of American society. Includes their double-barrelled global impact.

New York City
News, opinion, and weekly headline review of New York City.

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