Wednesday, December 02, 2009

World AIDS Day 2009

Opening remarks, World AIDS Day candlelight vigil,
Harvard University, December 2, 2009

How many of you know a person living with HIV?

How many of you know five people living with HIV?



A hundred?

To date, AIDS has claimed more than 25 million lives – roughly two million of whom died in 2008 alone. Globally, 30-35 million people are living with HIV – half-a-million to a million of whom live in the United States, more than 10,000 of whom live in the Boston area.

HIV…. AIDS is not “somewhere else.” It is not simply something that happens to “other people.” Your raised hands bear witness to that, and your presence here this evening, 21 years since the first World AIDS Day, bears witness to the fact that this awful pandemic is so much more than numbers, numbers too large to truly make sense of. Since the first cases were identified in 1981, this disease has been spoken of as a disease of “others” – of “GRID,” “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency,” of the “4-Hs” – homosexuals, Haitians, hemophiliacs, heroin users -- or now, of African children orphaned by HIV – of whom there are far, far, far too many.

But no matter how often we hear “general populations,” no matter how many nickels from our gingerbread lattés may go to African relief, HIV is not just “there,” it is “here.” Not just in Cambridge and Boston, not just on campus at Harvard, though it is here, quite literally – privilege might soften the blow of a deadly virus, but it does not stop it.

I ask you to think beyond “here’s” and “there’s,” beyond “us”’s and “them”’s, and to consider what it means to live a life of solidarity instead of a life of charity.

This question struck me as I was thinking over what to say tonight – thinking of my friend Amber, who interviewed for one of the first jobs in HIV support services back in the early 1980s, and of the mass panic that erupted when other subway passengers saw that she was reading – reading about AIDS – she must “have AIDS” and thus was a threat to them. I thought about the amazing ACT UP exhibit at the Carpenter Gallery – and if you haven’t seen it yet, go before it closes later this month, and look at the posters, listen to the ACT UP oral history stories, and teach yourself about this history, one that was here, is here, not just somewhere else. I thought of my own coming out, telling my father that I’m gay, and his first words being, “have you been tested for AIDS?” – and I could not find the voice to tell him that HIV had scared me so deeply that there was no need yet for such a test, barring a miracle on the order of the Immaculate Transmission.

But this is a year where the epidemic has hit closer to home than ever before, where two more friends tested positive since we stood here at last year’s World AIDS Day vigil – one of whom is an old friend and lover. As we talked, I remember him commenting upon being in good health, having the privilege to have been born in an era when drugs can stave off the ravages of HIV, to have the insurance to make those drugs available – as we fight for universal access to retrovirals, as we demand recognition that health is indeed a fundamental human right. But I also think of his discretion – his very understandable discretion – about his new HIV status, and how that lies in the blunt realities of bias, discrimination, shame, and fear that lie below the thinnest of veneers of liberal tolerance. Even now, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, it is too easy, and all too common, to project those fears onto others – over there, someone else – so that we can maintain the fantasy of belonging to some mythical general population. And so I ask, again, for you to think about what it would look like to live without us and them, without here and there – living not for charity but for solidarity, as we are one.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Edward Kennedy, 1932-2009

When an assassin's bullet felled President John F. Kennedy, we were left to mourn -- and to wonder whether the U.S. would have waged the futile, disastrous Vietnam War had he lived.

When an assassin's bullet felled Senator Robert F. Kennedy, we were left to mourn -- and to contemplate the "what if's" of history, without Watergate, without Kent State, without the many other crimes and malfeasances of the Nixon Administration -- what would have been.

Now a brain tumor has claimed Senator Edward Kennedy's life after a long and glorious career, right at that historical moment when his voice was so desperately needed in the campaign to secure universal health care for all Americans.

No doubt, President Obama will invoke Senator Kennedy's legacy in the struggle for health care, like President Johnson used the memory of his slain predecessor to secure passage of the Civil Rights Act. Whether Obama will be as successful as LBJ remains to be seen.

Ted Kennedy's political career is a tribute to those who believe in politics as the art of the possible, and believe that political compromise and coalition building are not synonymous with cowardice and preemptive surrender -- the tactical philosophy that has unfortunately guided much of the Democratic Party for the last twenty years or more. A handful of Republican leaders -- John McCain and Orrin Hatch, most notably -- whom I might disagree with passionately on most issues, but who nonetheless clearly have dedicated their political lives to working on behalf of a broader society and not merely their partisan base, they understand what we have lost, and are grieving not only for Sen. Kennedy and his family, but what we have lost as a nation.

As I sat down to write this, the café's piped music channel started to play Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land." Guthrie's alternative national anthem for the have-nots and the dispossessed, especially the seldom-played latter verses, seems like a fitting song to play in memory of the fallen lion of the U.S. Senate.

In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'
If this land's still made for you and me.

Thank you, Senator Kennedy, for fighting to keep this land a land for you and me.

Rest in Peace, Senator Kennedy.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Don't Moan, Organize

Back in college, I got heavily involved for a couple years with RESULTS, a grassroots advocacy organization dedicated to creating the political will to ending hunger around the globe. RESULTS argued that the resources already existed to wipe out malnutrition and hunger-related diseases; what was missing was (and is, to this day) was the commitment, by political leaders, everyday citizens, and policymakers, media figures, NGOs, and the like to transform well-wishes into concrete actions.

I'm remembering my time with RESULTS, as I get ready for Boston Pride tomorrow, and as I've watched the new administration juggle the Great Recession, the Afghan-Pakistan War, Iraq, Guantánamo, North Korea, health care, and green jobs on the one hand, and its hesitant approach to LGBT rights on the other. Sure, lots of us want to see marriage equality, the repeal of both the Defense of Marriage Act and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (at the top of my own priority list) and LGBT-inclusive hate crimes legislation, immigration reform that allows same-same partners to actually both live in the U.S., the revision of the Health & Human Services Department policy that still bans immigration to the U.S. by HIV+ individuals, and a host of other laws that collectively guarantee equal citizenship for all Americans, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status. (Of course, while there's no pro-hunger movement, there is a well-organized and well-funded movement opposed to the agenda outlined here)

I don't see the political will to make this happen, though. I'm also reminded as well of the quote frequently attributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who when pressed by labor and civil rights leaders to support their agenda, reportedly replied, "I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it."

Who is making Obama do the right thing? Who is pressuring conservative Democrats, especially in the Senate, to support this agenda?

There's a lot of teeth-gnashing and anger out there in the LGBT blogosphere and web of social networking, some of it very justified, some of it perhaps exaggerated and disproportionate, grounded in the Administration's foot-dragging and lack of followthrough on LGBT rights -- the silence on marriage equality victories in Iowa, Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire; the mixed messages on DADT, and today, the Department of Justice's filing to uphold the Defense of Marriage Act -- a completely standard DOJ procedure and yet an entirely tone-deaf and insulting message standing on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.

I keep wondering, though: who is making Obama do the right thing? Where's the movement to create the political will to support a pro-LGBT agenda? There are tireless activists, national & statewide organizations, and others working on all these issues, of course, but I get the sense that much of the anger out there online is not in fact dedicated to organizing a movement that holds the White House and Congressional Democrats accountable. There is, of course, the building movement to overturn Prop 8 in California, but (and I mean no disrespect to that campaign or to LGBT and allied Californians) for the nearly 90% of us Americans who do not in fact live in the Golden State, many of us seem to be mistaking one (significant) piece of the puzzle for the entire picture. A March on Washington could, theoretically, be a tool in building that movement, but the call for such a March this coming October 11 seems wildly ill-conceived (see
this critique and this set of suggestions of what to do instead).

I can't help wonder if some folks expected Obama's victory to solve all our problems. The campaign to win last year was critical and wonderful -- but it was the pre-game show; now the work really begins. I'm reminded of Frederick Douglass' stirring admonition: power never concedes anything without a struggle -- it never has, and it never will.

Some of you are working hard to build this movement up. But to the rest of you, I hope you turn your anger into action. Do you think that Human Rights Campaign is out of touch, or elitist, or transphobic? Fine, but don't let that be an excuse for inaction. Donate to
Lambda Legal, the amazing group working for LGBT rights and the rights of HIV+ people through the courts, and to the Victory Fund, the group dedicated to electing LGBT people to political office. Look up when your Congressional representatives are back home, and lobby them. Check out how Immigration Equality is lobbying for the Reuniting Families Act. Go to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Creating Change conference in Dallas next February. Attend a Wellstone Action training to learn how to lobby your elected officials -- or run for office yourself. Find your statewide organization through the Equality Federation website and see what's happening locally. See what PFLAG and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network are doing to support LGBTQ youth, teachers, and parents, and to pass safe schools legislation. And when you act locally, chances are opportunities will open up to lobby national policymakers as well.

If you're angry, great, but don't let that anger go to waste. Democracy isn't a spectator sport, after all; it's messy, it's nasty, and, as the old lottery commercials told us, "ya gotta be in it to win it."