More than 2,000 HIV/AIDS activists from around the world took part in the “Make the Promise” march through downtown Washington on Sunday.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, journalist Tavis Smiley, Dr. Cornel West and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young were among those who urged President Obama and other elected officials to do more to combat the domestic epidemic during an earlier rally near the Washington Monument.
“We believe today will be the start of a turning point in the battle against AIDS,” said AIDS Healthcare Foundation President Michael Weinstein during a pre-rally press conference. “Today is not just about a march on Washington to end AIDS; this is about a rebirth of AIDS activism across this country. Our message today is the war against AIDS has not been won. Our message today is that the world must keep its promise. Now is not the time to withdraw and also today that the voices of people living with HIV in this organization will be heard.”
The gathering took place hours before Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, California Congresswoman Barbara Lee and others spoke at the International AIDS Conference’s opening plenary at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Obama is scheduled to address the gathering later this week in a short video message, but the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and some HIV/AIDS activists have criticized him for not attending the conference in person. (Comedian Margaret Cho, who emceed the “Keep the Promise” rally, noted that the president actually flew over the Mall during the event on his way to meet with victims of the Aurora, Colo, movie theater massacre and their families.)
“[AIDS] is such an important issue — it is a global issue,” Cho told the Blade before the rally as she responded to a question about Obama’s absence from the International AIDS Conference. “It is something that we really need to talk about and deal with and so it’s disappointing to think that he wouldn’t be there, but at the same time the fact we’re all here — we are American. We’re the world and that’s all that matters. This is really for us and it will inspire I think the government to get more involved when they see all these people out here dealing with this, talking about this, celebrating ourselves.”
The AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which organized the rally and march, has repeatedly criticized the White House for what it maintains is the administration’s inadequate response to the epidemic. In addition to the president’s decision not to speak at AIDS 2012, the organization has criticized Obama for cutting funding for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. It has also accused the administration of not doing enough to eliminate AIDS Drug Assistance Program waiting lists.
“No matter how well-intentioned he is, no matter how much better he is than the other choice, he will end up another garden variety politician,” said Smiley. “He will be transactional and not transformational if we don’t… in the spirit of love hold him accountable.”
Weinstein also asked Smiley and West on stage to discuss the role that homophobia within the black community impacts the HIV/AIDS epidemic in this country.
“We got to recognize that homophobia is as evil as white supremacy, as male supremacy, as anti-Jewish hatred, anti-other bigotry and anti-Islam sensibility,” said West. “We want integrity and consistency and the only way to get it is you’ve got to bare witness.”
Sharpton highlighted marriage rights for same-sex couples and other civil rights struggles during his speech. He also singled out the black church and other faith traditions for not doing enough to combat HIV/AIDS.
“They have not dealt with the issue because of their own bias and their own homophobia and their own misconception of what this is,” said Sharpton. “Jesus healed people. He didn’t interviewed people. He never asked people why they were sick, all he asked is do you want to be made whole. Your job reverend, your job rabbi, your job imam is not to condemn people; it’s to heal people. And if you’re not down with the healing, you need to turn in your collar and get another kind of vocation.”
Cho: We need a cure
Cho said her HIV/AIDS activism began in San Francisco as a teenager during the height of the epidemic in the 1980s.
“It was a really disheartening thing to grow up around the disease and watching it actually kill people. I would see particularly healthy grown men really in the prime of their lives and everyday I would see them slowly start to succumb to the disease,” she told the Blade. “It was really a terrible awakening about mortality and the terrible nature of an incurable disease and also the incredible ignorance and suffering around it in the community in San Francisco and the gay community. It was so tough.”
More than three decades after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the first cases of what became known as AIDS, Cho said that this country has made “great strides” in helping people live with HIV. She stressed that she feels a number of challenges remain in the fight against the virus.
“There’s this idea that AIDS is gone, it’s over,” said Cho. “A lot of young people are not paying attention to the way I was raised with it. In my culture there was so much fear around it. There was a lot of not knowing the facts. At this point in time, 30 years later, the fear has subsided. It’s become a kind of apathy.”
Cho further reflected upon the march when asked about Washington’s HIV rates, which are among the highest in the world.
“Every time there’s a march on Washington, it is really an inspiring thing,” she said, noting she attended the 2000 Millennium March on Washington for gay rights. “It was so amazing and I really feel like that march really led to people starting to realize that gay marriage can happen and now we’re seeing that over the last 12 years. It’s taken 12 years, but we’re starting to see it happen. That was I think a catalyst. When we have a march on Washington — and this is solely devoted to awareness, AIDS awareness, AIDS education and really just healing this city — that’s really powerful.”
Those who attended the “Keep the Promise” march and rally shared Cho’s activism towards ending the epidemic.
“The citizens of this country need to step up,” said Omar Lopez of Austin, Tex., who was discharged from the Navy after he said he was falsely accused of being HIV-positive. “They need to get educated, stop being tabooed about it, stop being stigmatized. It doesn’t discriminate.”
Christine Dubreeze, an HIV/AIDS service provider who works with South African farm workers, told the Blade that she hopes groups that work with people living with the virus receive adequate funding from governments, UNAIDS and other global bodies.
“The most important [thing] is medication and really the use of condoms,” she said as she marched along 15th Street, N.W., near the Wilson Building. “But people don’t change their attitudes and their behaviors.”
(Washington Blade photo gallery by Michael Key)