One underdog Democratic presidential candidate with firsthand experience of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s wants to wield love — including gay love — as her weapon of choice to take on President Trump in 2020.
Marianne Williamson, an author whose vision for a “Politics of Love” is the subject of her latest book and drew attention at the first Democratic debate, said in an interview Thursday with the Washington Blade her vision applies to LGBT people.
“I don’t think that there’s gender to love, I don’t think there’s sexuality to love,” Williamson said. “I think that sexuality and gender are the containers and the ways we express our love, but I think love is love. I honor gay love because it’s love. I honor love.”
Williamson, 67, said her work during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s is “well-documented.” At the time, she founded the Los Angeles and Manhattan Centers for Living, which sought to provide free non-medical care to people with HIV, and Project Angel Food, which delivers food to homebound people with AIDS.
“I’ve worked with thousands of people during that time, during the AIDS crisis, spiritual support groups, food, etcetera.,” Williamson said. “So actually, my activism on behalf of that community has been ongoing and began during the AIDS crisis, so my connection to that community has been strong and has been going on for a very long time.”
In the aftermath of racist tweets from President Trump and presiding over a rally in which supporters chanted “send her back” in reference to Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Williamson likened the current administration to Nazi Germany before World War II.
Asked what aspect of the Trump administration’s anti-LGBT record bothers her the most, Williamson identified the transgender military ban, saying Trump “in many ways, leads the pack” in cultural attitudes against transgender people.
When the Blade asked Williamson why she thinks Vice President Mike Pence seems so uncomfortable with the idea of gay rights, she laughed and referenced rumors that Pence is himself gay without explicitly saying so.
“Well, there are all kinds of theories about that, aren’t there?” Williamson said. “Everyone can have their own — can have their own. I have no idea, but I have a sense that other people do.”
Remembering Los Angeles as being hard hit by AIDS in the 1980s because it affected many people in the entertainment industry and LGBT people, Williamson became emotional and unable to speak when she reflected on the ravages of the disease.
“Those of us who did experience it, it imprints them,” Williamson said. “You’re imprinted with something. I can’t even talk about it now and not —“
David Kessler, a gay longtime friend of Williamson, said the candidate is “brilliant and articulate and she has always been someone who thinks a little out of the box,” marveling at her work during the height of the AIDS epidemic.
The two met, Kessler said, as a result of an AIDS support group she held in his living room every Monday night when he was in another section of town doing a support group.
Recalling the days when medical practitioners would decline to treat people with AIDS, Kessler said Williamson would visit gay men as they were dying in hospitals and came up with the idea for the Los Angeles Center for Living.
“Even back then, I said, ‘Well, do you have a business plan?” Kessler said. “And she goes, ‘No. I don’t have a business plan. I’m just trying to make this happen. And I’m like, ‘Well, you’re going to need a business plan for an organization.’ And she goes, ‘I’m going to just make this happen.’ And she started calling people, and started saying we have to this place for people to come, and the next thing I know, she started this amazing LA Center for Living.”
Kessler said Williamson started Project Angel Food when she realized gay men with AIDS had stopped coming to the center because they were too sick to leave their homes.
“They were getting sicker and they couldn’t come in for lunch,” Kessler said. “And she said, ‘Well, we have to bring them lunch,’ and that turned into Project Angel Food, which still exists today, and just the other day served its 12 millionth meal.”
Williamson has taken flak for once calling vaccine mandates “Orwellian” and “draconian” — a statement for which she has since issued an apology — and bristled when asked whether she would support a hypothetical HIV vaccine.
“I think my quote unquote, concern over vaccines has been vastly misrepresented,” Williamson said. “I am pro-vaccine. I am also pro-independent scientific research. And I am aware of how often in our country today because of the influence of Big Pharma, independent research through such sources as the Centers for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health so forth, is diminished. I also am never happy with the suppression of independent consultation In the United States.”
Regarding the AIDS vaccine, Williamson said she “knows that it exists.” Just last week, the National Institutes for Health announced the start of trials in the United States and abroad for a potential HIV vaccine.
Kessler defended Williamson as a supporter of medicine, saying “there’s been things said that she’s against medicine, which is completely utterly wrong.”
“I remember Marianne giving men money and taking them to UCLA for the AZT study and giving them money for prescriptions,” Kessler said. “There’s no part of Marianne that was anti-medicine.”
Despite Williamson’s record of working for LGBT people, many LGBT voters have been drawn to other candidates, including gay South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (whose success to date Williamson called “wonderful.”)
One gay Democratic advocate with familiarity of LGBT donors in Los Angeles, who spoke on condition of anonymity for greater candor, said eyes have been on other candidates who appear better poised to win in the general election.
“I know that there are a number of folks here who look very kindly on all of the work that she did in the community in the past — but most are now focused on more serious candidates who stand a real chance at beating our current threat: Donald Trump,” the advocate said.
The full interview follows:
Washington Blade: Let me just get right into it. The Washington Blade is the nation’s oldest LGBT newspaper. We’re celebrating our 50th anniversary, in fact, this year.
And so to start off with, I want to ask you, because you’re running in a field of Democratic candidates with records in support of LGBT rights, what makes you think your candidacy and vision for a “politics of love” is the best choice for the LGBT community?
Marianne Williamson: Well, I actually have a very long record of activism on behalf of the LGBTQ community. Starting in 1983, starting in the 80s, with the AIDS crisis, my activism is well documented, having founded the Los Angeles Centers for Living, and the Manhattans Center for Living, both which gave non-profit, gave free non-medical services to people living with AIDS and other life-challenging illnesses.
And one of the programs of the Centers for Living was Project Angel Food. This was a “Meals on Wheels” program I founded in the late 80s, to feed homebound people with AIDS.
Today, the organization still exists and has served over 11 million meals. I did numerous — I’ve worked with thousands of people during that time, during the AIDS crisis, spiritual support groups, food, etc. So actually, my activism on behalf of that community has been ongoing and began during the AIDS crisis. So, my connection to that community has been strong and has been going on for a very long time.
Blade: And I think, as you said, that your work with the Los Angeles and Manhattan Centers for Living, and Project Angel Food is well documented. But what about the future? To what extent will your signature plans — the institution of a Department of Children & Youth, the Department of Peace and reparations — address issues facing LGBT people?
Williamson: I don’t think the Department of Children & Youth or even necessarily the Department of Peace specifically speak to that.
The issue of LGBT rights to me is a basic justice and civil rights issue in the United States. Discrimination against gay people, particularly against trans people today, is unfortunately, it could be argued at an all-time high. It seems in some ways, and in some ways, it is true, great strides have been made.
Also, I’d like to point out that I was — among public figures — I was very, very early in support of marriage equality, long before most democratic politicians were, I was out there publicly talking about how gay people should be able to marry while a lot of other people, even on the left in public positions, we’re saying, oh marriage is — what did they say? — you know, between a man and a woman or whatever. So I have always been very, very vocal about my support.
In terms of what’s happening today. Well, obviously great strides have been made, marriage equality, etc. When you look at some of the discrimination, and also some of the cultural attitudes, particularly against trans people, it’s very disturbing what is happening today. And of course, unfortunately, this president in many ways, leads the pack.
So I have, as I have always had, a very acute awareness and sensitivity to the propensity of certain forces, to scapegoat the LGBTQ community, and to — through legislation, as well as the propagation of very unjust cultural attitudes — make life harder for them. I’m very aware of always to the best of my ability, within the purview of the power that’s been given me, stood up not just in word, but in action, and will definitely continue to do that as president of the United States.
Blade: I did want to ask you some questions about President Trump. He’s had quite a controversial week to put it politely. On Sunday, he told four congresswomen to go back to their home countries in racist tweets and held the rally last night, and which supporters chanted “send her back” in reference to Rep. Ilhan Omar. What’s your reaction to all that?
Williamson: I’d be glad to send you the link to the CNN interview with Anderson Cooper that I gave right after the rally.
I thought it was one of the most disturbing speeches a president of the United States has ever given. It was beyond disturbing, it was dangerous. These are elected — these are American women. They are elected representatives in Congress, and our political opponents are not our enemies. We do not do that in America.
And all people of goodwill and conscience — in fact, all patriotic Americans, whether on the left or on the right, need to be very alert and aware of the danger that is posed by this kind of dictatorial behavior. This kind of saying this demonization of one’s political opponents is straight out of a fascist playbook.
Blade: In terms of LGBT rights, though, what upsets you the most about how President Trump has handled them?
Williamson: Well, the military ban is particularly egregious, because these are people who have volunteered to give their lives if necessary. The idea that you would actually reject someone who has offered to sacrifice their life on your behalf is such an emotional and psychological assault, in addition to being an assault on their rights as American citizens.
I take the Declaration of Independence very seriously. To me, it is America’s mission statement. And what is wrong in our country is that we have lost our psychological and emotional commitment to that statement. All are created equal. All were given by God the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Governments are instituted to secure those rights. And I note, not thwart those rights, secure those rights. And it is the right of the people to alter that government, if it fails to do so.
It is time for all patriotic Americans to not only understand that, but to also realize that, as my father used to say, if they’re coming from anyone, they could come for you someday. As Martin Luther King said, injustice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere. So as president, it would not even matter to me whether someone is gay, straight, LGBTQ, black, white, brown, what their ethnicity [is]. They’re American. For that matter, they’re human.
Because I believe that when the Declaration of Independence says all are created equal it doesn’t even just say Americans. The issue of equality for all is core to everything America stands for, and we should have a president deeply committed to that principle, not willing to compromise it in any way, shape or form.
Blade: One more question about the Trump administration. Why do you think Vice President Mike Pence seems so uncomfortable with the idea of gay rights?
Williamson: [laughs] Well, there are all kinds of theories about that, aren’t there? Everyone can have their own — can have their own. I have no idea, but I have a sense that other people do.
Blade: What is your theory? Why do you think that is?
Williamson: I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s not, it’s not my job to weigh in on the vice president’s motivation. It’s my job to weigh in on his behavior, as vice president of the United States, his words and his behavior, or whatnot. And they are not in my mind in keeping with the dedication to equality that is called for in someone who holds a high office or any political office in the United States.
Blade: I want to go back to your history and how during the AIDS epidemic, you founded the Los Angeles and Manhattan Center for Living and Project Angel Food. Would would be the No. 1 thing you learned from that experience?
Williamson: That people are so good. When that happened, I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and Los Angeles was particularly hard hit by the epidemic. And also the entertainment industry, it was very hard hit by the epidemic because so many people in the arts, so many gay people, so many people who were affected by the illness, were, you know, living in Los Angeles, living in New York, in theater, design, fashion. It was — it was — it was — it was like a war zone in ways that many people today cannot even imagine.
Because for a long time there was nothing. I’m not saying that Western medicine wasn’t doing its best, because it absolutely was. But it took a while before the diagnosis of the virus was anything other than a death sentence.
And so all we had was our love for each other, but love for each other was so prevalent. People were so willing to do anything, and the bravery and people and the love in people — because remember, it wasn’t just people who had the virus. It was also people whose brothers or sisters whose parents, whose children, whose friends — it seemed like almost everybody was affected.
And yet we were there for each other. And I saw what people will do for each other. And I think everybody who lived through that time is marked by that experience. No one who lived through it will ever forget it.
But you remember…I’ll be glad to send you my book, my new book, “Politics of Love.” In the introduction, I talk about it. And I talk about it in terms of my experience having been through a collective trauma. That’s what it was. It was a collective trauma. It wasn’t just what you were going through, or what I was going through, it’s what everybody we knew was going through.
And it’s — it’s an experience like no other. And I’m glad for people who have never experienced it. Don’t get me wrong. But those of us who did experience it, it imprints them. You’re imprinted with something. I can’t even talk about it now and not —
[At this point, Williamson says she has to check in to the airport for a flight and will call back.]
Blade: That disease still exists today. And what I want to ask you about is one thing that the Trump administration has done is start an initiative that the Department of Health & Human Services that has the goal of ending the HIV epidemic by the year 2030. Are you aware of this initiative? And what do you make of it?
Williamson: I’m not aware of the initiative. But is it — the first thing I would do is to ask gay leaders, actually, do they feel that that is a year that is reasonable, or should we try to speed it up.
And I support any initiative and from any administration, whether it’s the Trump administration or any other if, in fact, is gets support. I’m certainly aware that AIDS still exists. It doesn’t exist in the United States like it once did. … And I support anything, any initiative, that would be of support in ending that epidemic.
Blade: You’ve expressed concern in the past about vaccine mandates. Do you think the creation of an HIV vaccine and a mandate to have that vaccine would be a good thing?
Williamson: First of all, I think my quote unquote, concern over vaccines has been vastly misrepresented. I am pro-vaccine. I am also pro-independent scientific research. And I am aware of how often in our country today because of the influence of Big Pharma, independent research through such sources as the Centers for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health so forth, is diminished.
I also am never happy with the suppression of independent consultation in the United States. Regarding the the AIDS vaccine, I know that it exists.
I don’t know enough about it medically to weigh in on that. But I’m certainly happy that such a vaccine exists.
Blade: Okay, let’s go back on the record. And get back to the Democratic primary and the election. One candidate that’s doing very well is South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Are you surprised that a candidate like him, an openly gay candidate like him, can be so successful?
Williamson: I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s wonderful for America that he is successful. I think that the election of President Obama demonstrated an openness on the part of Americans. And so, given the fact that we elected a black president, I’m not shocked at the willingness of the American people to elect a gay president.
I also hope the American people will be willing to elect a woman president, I hope the American people will be willing to elect a Jewish president. I hope that we are living at a time when we are ready to receive each other at a deep level and honor each other at such a deep level as to recognize the genius that lies within us all.
Blade: What is the most significant relationship you have with someone in the LGBT community?
Williamson: Well, my daughter has five gay godfathers. My best friend was — for many years — he died a couple of years ago, three years ago, four years ago, was a gay man. So my relationships with gay individuals have been actually very deep.
Blade: Is there anyone in particular who stands out to you?
Williamson: Well, Richard Cooper was my best friend. He died, unfortunately. There was a gentleman named Bruce Biermann, who I’m sure would be glad to talk to you because he was very much a part of the whole Project Angel Food for years. Also David Kessler, both of them are godfathers to my daughter. They were both very involved. And David is also involved in my campaign, the relationship goes back many years and very — we’ve all been through a lot together.
Blade: What would you say if your child came out to you as gay or transgender?
Williamson: Good for you that you know who you are, and it’s good for you that you know what is right for you. Are there any challenges that you’re facing? I’m your mom. I’m here for you. How can I help?
I’d also say to my daughter: Just be clear, I still want grandchildren.
Blade: That’s understandable, right? So, I mean, You talk a lot about the politics of love. And you said during the last debate, you said you want to beat President Trump in a field of love. Do you think gay love can beat President Trump?
Williamson: I think love is love. I don’t think that the way — gay love, straight love, the important part to me there is love. I think the point is that there is no — I don’t think that there’s gender to love, I don’t think there’s sexuality to love. I think that sexuality and gender are the containers and the ways we express our love, but I think love is love.
I honor gay love because it’s love. I honor love.
Blade: I guess is my final question for you: Love regardless of gender, I mean, how confident are you when the dust clears in November 2020, how confident are you know that it will ultimately defeat President Trump?
Williamson: Let’s look at what is happening in this country. And let’s look at the reaction of people to what is happening in this country. Let’s look at how many Americans are deeply aware that democratic values, humanitarian values, everything that makes a democracy meaningful, and life beautiful, is under assault from the policies of this administration.
I trust the American people to wake up to this moment, to rise to the occasion to resist what needs to be resisted, and pave the way for a better future for us all. I have faith that the American people are going to rise to the occasion here. I believe that it will happen.