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AIDS 2012: “Keep the Promise” march draws more than 2,000

Marchers demanded President Obama and others do more to combat HIV/AIDS



HIV/AIDS activists march along 15th Street, N.W. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

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)

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Office of National AIDS Policy Director Phillips: Congress must increase funding

‘Without congressional funding we can’t get there’



The White House in 2011 (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Harold Phillips, director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP), said Monday that Congress must increase funding to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic, including for programs designed around the lives and needs of Americans who are living with the disease.

“We have the support of the Biden-Harris administration, and we have the support at HHS, but without congressional funding we can’t get there,” said Phillips, who delivered his remarks during the AIDS United annual AIDSWatch conference in Washington, D.C.

Phillips echoed remarks by other speakers in calling for Congress to increase appropriations funding for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, but he also emphasized the importance of “making space for people living with HIV in other aspects of the budget.”

Consistent with the Biden-Harris administration’s focus on employing a whole-of-government approach, Phillips said stakeholders must understand that while “HIV is, yes, a public health threat,” the disease is also “the result of systemic and structural racism,” an intersectional problem requiring more than narrowly focused biomedical or public health responses.

Therefore, he said, these conversations about matters like HIV’s impact on Black lives, or considerations for aging folks who are living with the disease, must be held at places like the White House Gender Policy Council, the National Economic Council, and the U.S. Department of Labor.

“When we talk about ending HIV as a public health threat,” Phillips said, “we also want to end HIV such that it’s not the defining characteristic for people living with HIV and that they can have access to housing, access to employment, good mental health and substance abuse treatment.”

Former ONAP Director Sandra Thurman with ONAP Director Harold Phillips (Screen shot/YouTube)

Under Phillips’s leadership, data on these considerations for those living with HIV/AIDS will be measured for the first time with ONAP’s rollout of new quality of life indicators in the National HIV/AIDS Strategy Federal Implementation Plan.

“There’s an indicator in there that’s self-reported quality of life,” Phillips said, which asks respondents to consider, “how do I feel?” This is important, he added, because people living with HIV may have positive lab results but still feel poorly.

Phillips advised those AIDSWatch participants who are slated to meet with members of Congress and their staffs after hosting a rally on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol Tuesday morning to “build a common bond” with lawmakers by emphasizing the human impact of the appropriations funding for which they are advocating.

An AIDS United spokesperson told the Washington Blade by email Monday that 187 congressional meetings have been scheduled for Tuesday.

Phillips also noted that while “conversations need to happen in Washington, there’s also conversations that need to happen on the state and local level,” where “we’re finding a level of hate and stigma and discrimination that’s on course to try to either stop our progress or take us backwards.”

Speaking before Phillips, Equality Federation Public Health Policy Strategist Mike Webb stressed the importance of policies under consideration by state and local lawmakers. “Our access to PrEP shouldn’t be based on a patchwork of laws by the states,” they said, and HIV-related legislative proposals in many cases would “add criminalizing aspects.”

Laws already on the books that “criminalize the transmission of, or perceived exposure to, HIV and other infectious diseases,” the Movement Advancement Project writes, “create a strong disincentive for being tested for HIV, and result in adverse public health outcomes.”

Phillips and the Biden administration have made modernizing or repealing those laws a top priority.

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Biden budget earmarks funds for HIV along with new programs for PrEP, hepatitis C

Budget seen as preview of Biden’s reelection campaign



The White House in 2011 (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The $6.8 trillion budget unveiled by President Joe Biden on Thursday includes increased investment in existing programs to fight HIV/AIDS, along with new initiatives to expand access to HIV prevention medications and eliminate hepatitis C.

U.S. House Republicans are expected to kill the proposal, which is nevertheless seen as a possible blueprint for the major themes to come in Biden’s expected reelection campaign.

Major focus areas of the plan include deficit reduction, increased taxes for the wealthy, and increased spending on the military and other endeavors to compete with China.

The HIV + Hepatitis Policy Institute praised the budget in a press release Thursday, writing that it will “significantly increase the federal resources necessary to end both HIV and hepatitis C.”

The group’s president, Carl Schmid, said Biden “recognizes the historic role the federal government must play, and the investments needed to end infectious diseases.”

First, the plan would bolster funding for the Trump-era Ending the HIV Epidemic in the United States initiative by $313 million, bringing the total to $850 million. Second, it would debut a “ten-year $9.7 billion nationwide PrEP delivery program” and a “historic initiative to eliminate hepatitis C.”

PrEP, or preexposure prophylaxis, is a medication regimen that reduces the risk of contracting HIV. According to the HIV + Hepatitis Policy Institute, only 30 percent of patients who could benefit from the drug are taking it.

The new hepatitis C program “seeks to provide outreach, testing, and curative medications to the estimated 2.4 million people living with hepatitis C, many of whom are unaware of their infection.”

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Gov. Newsom: Calif. will not do business with Walgreens after decision to not distribute abortion pill

20 Republican state attorneys general threatened to sue Walgreens for offering mifepristone



Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.) announced on Monday that California will not do business with Walgreens following the company’s announcement of its decision on Friday to not distribute the abortion pill mifepristone in 20 states.

The move comes amid pressure from conservative lawmakers and threats of legal action against Walgreens and CVS from 20 Republican state attorneys general, who claimed in a Feb. 1 press release that selling mifepristone is “unsafe and illegal.”

Mifepristone is still legal in several of the states where Walgreens has decided to stop providing it in response to the specter of lawsuits from state attorneys general: Alaska, Iowa, Kansas and Montana.

Newsom’s office told NPR that California will review “all relationships between Walgreens and the state,” but declined to provide more specifics.

“California won’t be doing business with @walgreens – or any company that cowers to the extremists and puts women’s lives at risk,” Newsom wrote in the tweet. “We’re done.”

“Elected officials targeting pharmacies and their ability to provide women with access to safe, effective, and FDA-approved medication is dangerous and just unacceptable,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during a briefing on March 3.

“The administration will continue to stand by the FDA’s expert judgment in approving and regulating medications. And in the face of barriers to access and concerns about safety of patients, healthcare providers, and pharmacists, we will continue to support access to this critical medication within the limits of the law,” Jean-Pierre said.

Meanwhile, Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas is expected to soon rule on a case challenging the safety of mifepristone that advocates for reproductive justice fear could lead to a nationwide injunction prohibiting the sale and distribution of the abortion drug.

Medical experts have slammed the Texas plaintiffs’ lawsuit, arguing that mifepristone’s safety and efficacy have been well demonstrated for years. Kacsmaryk, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, is nevertheless expected to rule in their favor.

“The plaintiffs who have no legitimate standing have hand-picked him to hear this case that has no merit because they know what they’re getting with Judge Kacsmaryk,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said last month.

Jean-Pierre addressed the case during a press briefing on March 1: “The decision would be unprecedented, as you know, and devastating to women’s health.  And we may find ourselves in uncharted territory,” she said.

“And so, we’re closely — closely working with the Justice Department and DHS — HHS on this, on how to be prepared for any range of outcome or potential outcomes,” Jean-Pierre added.

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