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Gilead duped me into being their mouthpiece

Here’s how a veteran activist was tricked by Big Pharma

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Gilead Sciences' Genvoya (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

This is the story of the insidious influence of Big Pharma on our HIV/AIDS leadership and policy-making, and how an experienced activist like me was tricked into delivering messages for the HIV pharma giant Gilead Sciences.

I was bamboozled because I didn’t do my homework, and I acknowledge this. I relied upon institutions I trusted and causes that sounded great on paper. All the while, Gilead’s fingerprints were everywhere.

The only way for me to make this right is to apologize, first, for putting my name on a seemingly helpful editorial, “The struggle to maintain access to life-saving HIV medications,” (The Washington Blade, 2/22/2019), which also appeared on my blog as, “A Medicare Change Could Keep Us from Life-Saving HIV Medications,” a post I must now disavow.

This media outreach project, as it turns out, was bought and paid for by Gilead, and included specific messaging that benefits the marketing of their newer HIV drugs.

This is how it happened and who was involved. The chips can fall where they may.

In January 2019, I responded to outreach from AIDS United, a national HIV/AIDS policy, lobbying and funding organization, to participate in a media strategy they asserted would help people living with HIV (PLWH). AIDS United wanted to identify PLWH who have benefited from Medicare Part D; specifically, how that program makes life-sustaining HIV medications available to those of us who are on Medicare.

At the time, AIDS United was fighting a proposed federal policy change that would have placed restrictions on what medications those of us on Medicare Part D could access first, before being eligible for newer medications. The policy change was presented as an attempt to save taxpayer dollars, but AIDS United argued it could potentially limit the options of those who may need the newest medications.

AIDS United sought influential PLWH to write editorials to drive public opinion against the policy change. I agreed to participate but did not receive payment of any kind.

AIDS United then handed me off to Precision Strategies, a public relations firm coordinating the project. Since governmental policy isn’t my usual lane, Precision Strategies drafted the editorial and I added my own voice and biographical details.

Activism lesson: if it isn’t your lane, don’t pretend that it is. Activist Writer lesson: don’t ever allow your name to be pasted onto someone else’s writing. They might be sneaking in key messages for Big Pharma.

The finished editorial sounded really smart. It cited how people might perish if they were forced to rely upon generics before having access to the latest drugs. It even referenced a study that suggests as much. I never questioned the study referenced. I trusted the players involved. Ahem.

A few weeks after the piece was published in the Washington Blade and on my site, activist James Krellenstein pointed out to me that the study’s relevance to the Medicare Part D debate is highly questionable. The reason is a pharma marketing lesson that Gilead doesn’t want you to read or understand, but stick with me. Drama is coming.

The study takes a fantasy scenario and manipulates it for Gilead’s benefit. It imagines that, if every PLWH were forced to use Gilead’s older drugs (such as Truvada, Viread, Atripla, Complera, and Stribild), and they had restricted access to Gilead’s newer drugs (like Descovy or Genvoya), then over 16,000 people would perish.

Why, James asked me, would this study suggest that 16,000 people could die if they were forced to rely on the older drugs? Doesn’t that death toll sound severe? Would it, perhaps, have anything to do with the fact that Gilead’s older formulations, such as Truvada, are going generic and the newer versions make them a lot more money? Why did this study conjure up this fantasy scenario in the first place?

The reason is simple. Because the study was funded by Gilead, the maker of those older drugs as well as the new, more expensive alternatives. Had I read the study thoroughly, I would have seen that it notes, right there in the text, that Gilead paid for the research.

How did Precision Strategies come up with this obscure study to help make a case about Part D expansion? Because Precision Strategies doesn’t work for AIDS United. Nope. They work for Gilead Sciences.

It is amazing, really, how fear can drive the decisions of the very HIV organizations that were founded to empower people.

(A longer version of this op-ed appears at marksking.com.)

Mark S. King is a writer and blogger. Reach him via marksking.com.

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Opinions

Trump shot with gun he believes every American should be allowed to own

Will assassination attempt change anything?

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(Screen capture via CNN)

President Biden is right, this is sick. No matter what I think of him, I am thankful Donald Trump is OK. There must be a call for everyone, on all sides, to curb the rhetoric and to stop using words like target and fight, which both sides use. And if we use those words in some legitimate way, they must immediately be followed by, “I mean at the ballot box.” That is, and must remain, the American way to change our government. 

Sadly, I can see within 24 hours, the image of Trump with his fist in the air, yelling “fight, fight, fight” for sale on coffee mugs and T-shirts. It will be a rallying cry for the right, while for me, it brought back images of Hitler. 

We must all call for an end to political violence, of any kind. We have seen too much of it. There was the attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband; death threats against members of Congress; attacks against judges and their families; and the violence of Jan. 6. It must all stop. It will take the leaders of both parties to call for this, and I am not sure we will see that. It will require gun control, and I am pretty sure we won’t see Republicans calling for that. The question must be asked, what was this 20-year-old doing with an AR-15? Did he get it legally, and why should he be allowed to have it? Will Trump continue to defend his right to have that weapon, now that he was nearly killed by it?

The first indication we will have of what Republicans do is at their convention which begins this week. There will be a laser focus on Trump, and other Republicans, during the convention in Milwaukee. What will they say? Will they even mention any form of gun control? Will they lower the rhetoric, or will they lean into the right-wing and speak in support of white nationalists as they have done in the past? Will they call for the groups who led the Jan. 6 coup for protection, and call them patriots, as they have in the past? All that will be interesting to see. It will also be just as interesting to see how Democrats, and their left-wing handle this. What will their rhetoric be? 

We have already heard from some MAGA Republicans. “Representative Mike Collins of Georgia actually accused Biden of ordering the attack. J.D Vance said, “Today is not just some isolated incident. The central premise of the Biden campaign is that President Donald Trump is an authoritarian fascist who must be stopped at all costs. That rhetoric led directly to President Trump’s attempted assassination.” Marjorie Taylor Greene said, “someone just tried to ASSASSINATE President Trump. The Democrats and the media are to blame for every drop of blood spilled today. For years and years, they’ve demonized him and his supporters. Today, someone finally tried to take out the leader of our America First and the greatest President of all time. Watch the video, President Trump said “FIGHT,” SO WE WILL!!” Clearly this rhetoric will not do anything to tamp down violence, but could lead Trump supporters to more violence. 

Calling Trump a fascist, and saying he wants to be a dictator, is not advocating violence. One can use those words. But once again, they should be followed by telling your audience that in our country, we use the ballot box, not weapons to create change. Now you have Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on “Meet the Press” saying, “Trump raised his hand and said don’t give up.” Let’s be honest, what he did was raise his fist, and say “fight, fight, fight!” One of the things all politicians should do is be honest. Speak the truth.

We move forward toward the election with so much at stake. With so much for the people of America to absorb, and take into consideration when they cast their ballots. I want the next weeks until Nov. 5 to be peaceful. Let each side make their pitch to the voters on the issues. Democrats will, and should, continue to talk to women, Black voters, the LGBTQ community, and young people, about what electing Donald Trump will mean for their future. This cannot stop talk about abortion, climate change, and democracy; about Project 2025 and the Republican platform. But it can all happen without violence.

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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Commentary

When queerness and art collide: My journey as a writer

Peter Pan, ‘Poor Things,’ and the power in pleasure

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Gay Carrie Bradshaw. Wannabe Dan Savage. Writing about barbacking like it’s some sort of mission trip. I’m not unaware of the perceptions surrounding this column, which, when directed toward me, often presents as, “How exactly did this happen?” 

That question is valid, in part because it happened so fast that I never processed the events leading up to it. It’s even more valid considering my dream was never to be a columnist at all, if one could call me that (delusional blogger, maybe?). No, instead, I wanted to write science fiction.   

That’s right — for years, I dedicated thousands of hours typing away at my laptop, making up plots, characters, settings, and sometimes laws of physics out of thin air. For most of that time, it was a hobby I kept close, telling few in my inner circle to avoid what others might think. Despite this insecurity, I managed to complete three-and-a-half full-length novels that now sit patiently as PDFs on my hard drive. 

Here you thought this column was weird. Oh, it’s just the tip of the iceberg, my friend. 

So how exactly does one go from science fiction to sex column? Buckle up for the unfiltered, unadulterated, and likely unrequested story of how that abrupt shift came to be. It all took place during a cold week last February, when three events aligned like planets to pave the way. 

First came some disappointing news. After being in talks with a literary agency for an entire year about one of my novels, the opportunity slipped through my fingers and crashed to the ground like the glassware drunk customers seem to love dropping, which, in both instances, leaves me sweeping the mess away. I should have expected this, for breaking into publishing is no small feat, particularly given my experience, or lack thereof. I have no MFA. No publishing credits. No formal creative writing training of any kind. I’m completely self-taught, relying on books and YouTube to learn both craft and industry. Given this, recognition from an agency as someone worth considering should feel like an accomplishment on its own. 

Still, the news was devastating, especially after abandoning my old career to pursue writing. I’ll never forget when Dusty, one of the bar owners, found me in the kitchen to ask if I was OK. I held back tears as I nodded back yes, but the voices in my head scolded me on how pathetic I probably appeared to the world. Sounds harsh, but let’s be honest: You’re only praised when your art makes it big, but when it doesn’t, you’re just another weirdo. More on that later.  

Fortunately, I had a bar shift to take my mind off the matter, which led to the second event. A few regulars sat at the bar and, as usual, gave me a friendly hello. On this wintry day business was slow, enabling me to chat more than usual. Naturally they inquired about my life outside the bar, which I’ll admit put me on edge. I mean, what do I say? Something told me, “I’m a twice-fired loser who thought he could write but just learned he can’t,” would bring down the mood a bit. 

Instead, I kept it vague with, “I like to write,” before turning the question back on them. As it just so happened, one of those regulars was Brian Pitts, co-owner of the Blade. 

“Maybe you could write for us,” he suggested. When I asked what they were looking for, he shrugged and suggested show reviews. I smiled, told him I’d get back to him next week, then walked away dismissing the idea. I mean, show reviews? Was I even qualified? I wasn’t sure I could write a story, let alone critique one. 

Then again, what more could I lose? Figuring a review was at least worth a try, I stumbled into the third event following my shift that Super Bowl Sunday. Instead of the Big Game, I hiked to Atlantic Plumbing to catch “Poor Things,” starring Emma Stone. I vaguely knew the premise but not much else, other than buzz around Stone’s performance. 

For those who haven’t seen it, “Poor Things” is a Victorian-era, somewhat-steampunk fantasy about a mad scientist who brings a deceased, pregnant woman back to life by replacing her brain with her infant’s. It’s a bonkers plot in which Stone’s character, Bella, becomes a woman reset—quite literally in this case—but as her young mind develops in her adult body, she experiences life uninhibited. Then come the most shocking sequences of all: Bella having sex, and lots of it. At one point she even becomes a prostitute, using the gig to explore her sexuality while building in free time to pursue other interests. 

I watched mesmerized, both appalled and intrigued, equally awed and revolted, while I couldn’t help but wonder: Is that me up on that screen?

I haven’t been shy about my own sexual journey, which I had assumed began and ended with my coming out. But damn was I wrong, and “Poor Things” showed me why. Notably, Bella’s sexual liberation shares a likeness to the queer experience. “Polite Society will destroy you,” one character tells her, which holds true for all queer journeys. Yet once we break free from these social chains, we often enter a reset—an infantile stage, if you will—to relive our robbed youth through fresh eyes. 

Unfortunately, not all queers leave this phase, instead remaining caught in an eternal adolescence often referred to as Peter Pan syndrome. Bella only escapes it through critical self-examination, understanding better what she truly wanted from life. Here “Poor Things” depicts sexual liberation as more than a moment; rather, it’s a process where rebirth is just the beginning. How far Bella’s liberation went relied entirely on her willingness to explore herself. Consequently, her liberation didn’t end with sex but rather her self-actualization, so by the final throes of the film sex is rarely mentioned. Herein lies the Power in Pleasure — the unabashed pursuit of all things you enjoy to become your happiest, most well rounded, most fully realized self.  

Later that night, instead of writing a review, I sat there reeling from the similarities between Bella’s life and my own. Bella taking on frowned-upon work in pursuit of herself mirrored my becoming a barback to pursue writing. And the sex? My God, I was amid a slut phase already, though I wanted to believe I was more than that. But wanting and believing are different things, aren’t they? I realized then I was holding myself back. My Peter Pan must grow up. 

As for my art, I bought into this silly notion that I’d open up as a writer if I ever made it big, as if that would shield me from rejection. Not so coincidentally, my mindset was similar before coming out as gay: I thought, let me hold off until I’m successful, then show the world successful people can be gay. Both experiences felt too similar to ignore, until I finally saw the profound connection between art and queerness. 

“Art was the precursor to fully allow me to embrace my queerness,” Scott would later tell me, who I’ve mentioned in the past is both my coworker and a performance artist. Scott was a theater kid in high school, which led them into a proud “Band of Misfits” that wore difference as a badge of honor. “I was able to find my queerness through art, through performance, and through training to become an actor.” 

My journey was the opposite: I came out as gay well before as a writer, which Scott assured me is normal. “We’re often told don’t express yourself, conform, conform, conform, and artists do the opposite of that,” said Scott. “Being an artist is hard. It’s a queering of what societal expectations are, particularly here in the District where there is so much ladder climbing professionally, socially, politically. The title of artist sort of queers the idea of what it means to be in Washington, D.C.” 

Scott was right. D.C., in comparison to other cities, feels uniquely difficult to pursue art. Even when we’re out — perhaps especially when we’re out — we D.C. gays tend to overcompensate for our perceived deficiency by ensuring everything else is in order, projecting a brighter image of what a good citizen ought to be, serving an ideal of a new normal, and leaping from one box only to scurry into another, albeit gayer, one. 

Yet was fitting into any box what I truly wanted? If polite society says yes, then fuck polite society. 

So, in a case of art imitating life imitating art likely imitating someone else’s life, I sat down and told my story, wrestling doubts of my craft, fighting my fears of what others might think, at times typing through my tears, all for the sake of my authenticity, since my repressing it was no longer an option. This is what it takes to bear your truth to the world. It’s what it takes to be an artist. No surprise, it’s also what it takes to come out queer, and to become the bravest version of yourself imaginable. 

I sent what I wrote to the Blade as soon as I finished, and the rest is history. And there you have it: the story about the review that never happened but became so much more, brought to you by my dramatic flair and ADHD. 

Though I must admit, gay Carrie Bradshaw has a nicer ring to it.

Jake Stewart is a D.C.-based writer and barback.

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Supreme Court must be enlarged and Congress needs term limits

Younger generations deserve a say in their future

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Justices of the United States Supreme Court (Photo public domain)

I will surely be challenged for these views, not the least being called ageist. But as someone older myself, I am comfortable with that. It is not that I think older people are not fully capable of functioning at a very high level; they are. I just believe we must let the next generations, who will be living much longer with the results of what government does, have more of a role in determining what that is. 

Based on what we have seen of this Supreme Court, its willingness to overturn decades of precedent, the time has come to expand the court for a rational balance. In addition, we should set 24-year term limits for justices, or retirement at 80, whichever comes first. Changing the number of people on the court is not a new idea. The number of persons on the Supreme Court has been changed six times since our country was founded. The U.S. Constitution is silent about how many justices should sit on the Supreme Court.  

“After the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination, Congress clashed with Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, who was rapidly undoing the “Radical Republicans” plan for Reconstruction. To limit Johnson’s power, Congress passed legislation in 1866 that cut the number of Supreme Court justices back to seven, all but assuring that Johnson wouldn’t have the opportunity to fill a vacant seat. The last time Congress changed the number of Supreme Court justices was in 1869, again to meet a political end. Ulysses S. Grant was elected president in 1868 with the backing of congressional Republicans who hated Johnson. As a gift to Grant, Congress increased the number of justices from seven back to nine, and Grant gamely used those picks.” On today’s Supreme Court Clarence Thomas has now served 32 years, and Roberts and Alito, 19 years each. Then there was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was 87, and had served 27 years, when she died, clinging to her seat when it was known how ill she was.

It is only recently I have come to this conclusion regarding the Supreme Court, and on term and age limits for the Congress. We are seeing too many older men, and women, cling to power. They may still have the mental acuity to perform their jobs, but entire generations aren’t serving because they refuse to leave. There is incredible power in incumbency, and we are seeing it abused. We are asking young people to vote for candidates old enough to be their grandparents, or great-grandparents. Some say they should revolt and change that. But the fact is, so much money is now in the game, the unlimited amount people can spend on their own campaigns, and collect from others, makes that nearly impossible. It’s rare to be able to fight incumbency and wealth. Yes, it can happen, as in the case of Maryland Congressman David Trone (D-Md.), who is 68, and tried to buy a United States Senate seat in Maryland with $60 million of his own money. He lost his primary to Angela Alsobrooks, who is 53, whose campaign had less than a tenth of that. But she was a known entity, and elected official, in her own right. 

Today, in the 100-member United States Senate, there is one senator over 90, four over 80, and another 10 over 70. I propose we set a limit of four terms, or 24 years, and mandatory retirement at 80. In the House of Representatives, which now has 11 members over 80, and 62 over 70, I would recommend a 12-term limit, or 24 years, and mandatory retirement at 80.

I have had conversations with many young people, and listened to their frustrations with their ability to move forward in politics. Many see the world differently than I do, and my belief is they are entitled to be making the decisions that will impact their lives, and not have the older generations continue to do so. I think being in office for 24 years is enough time to make a difference, and to accomplish what you wanted to do when you ran for office. And if you couldn’t do it, it is time to allow the next generations to try. 

The desire to cling to power is natural. For many, the fear of retirement, and not knowing what they will do with their lives, is scary. I think one must plan for that, even politicians. They need to accept they can make a difference, even if not in office, if they really want to.

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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