August 24, 2020 at 8:23 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Fight against HIV/AIDS ‘goes across party lines’
Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón and former U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) (Photo of González Colón public domain; Washington Blade photo of Ros-Lehtinen by Michael Key)

Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón and former U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) on Monday stressed the fight against HIV/AIDS remains a bipartisan issue.

“This is a health issue,” said González during a Zoom call that AIDS United organized. “This is not about a certain group of the community. This is not about a specific gender. This is about health care. This is about health.”

González is a Republican non-voting member of the U.S. House of Representatives who is a member of Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood New Progressive Party. California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who chairs the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus, late last year named González co-chair of the group.

González on Monday said more than 40,000 people in Puerto Rico live with HIV. She also noted she and Lee in March introduced a bill that would repeal laws that criminalize people with HIV/AIDS and discriminate against them.

“This is something that goes across party lines,” she said. “This is something that affects everybody … we should be doing something about it.”

Ros-Lehtinen, who was born in Cuba, in 1989 became the first Latina woman elected to Congress. She represented portions of South Florida in the House until her retirement in 2019.

Ros-Lehtinen co-chaired the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus until Lee named González as her successor.

“Jenniffer understands the issue,” said Ros-Lehtinen on the call, referring to González.

Ros-Lehtinen acknowledged the HIV/AIDS pandemic has “heavily impacted” South Florida.

Service providers in South Florida with whom the Washington Blade recently spoke said the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated existing health and economic disparities for people with HIV/AIDS. Puerto Ricans with HIV/AIDS have struggled with the same disparities that Hurricane Maria, which devastated the U.S. commonwealth in 2017, and the current pandemic have made more acute.

González herself announced hours after she participated in the AIDS United call that she had tested positive for coronavirus.

Ros-Lehtinen noted she and Lee had vastly different positions on a variety of issues, but “on this subject and on many other subjects, there are no party labels.”

“You have the disease, there’s no discrimination,” said Ros-Lehtinen.

González agreed.

“I believe in equality,” she said. “I’m living in Puerto Rico where 3.2 million Americans are disenfranchised. They cannot vote for president. They cannot vote for their senators. They don’t have equal representation in Congress. I can’t be selecting how equality is going to be defined or what issues are equal or what not.”

“Equality is equality,” added González. “Health care is equality and in that sense I should be representing my island and all the people, including the people with HIV.”

The AIDS United call coincided with the first day of the Republican National Convention.

President Trump in his 2019 State of the Union address vowed to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic within a decade. Advocates with whom the Blade spoke at the time expressed skepticism and noted, among other things, Trump in 2017 abruptly fired all members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS without explanation.

The Trump administration’s record on LGBTQ rights issues has been sharply criticized. Outgoing Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced, who is a member of González’s party, has also faced intense criticism from activists in the U.S. commonwealth and elsewhere over her administration’s LGBTQ rights record.

Ros-Lehtinen on the call noted former Vice President Biden, like Trump, has also pledged to end the HIV epidemic.

“This is a human issue,” said Ros-Lehtinen. “It’s not a Republican problem or a Democratic problem. We’ve got to come together to solve it.”

AIDS United President Jesse Milan, Jr., who has lived with HIV for 38 years, agreed.

“Ending this epidemic is clearly a bipartisan issue,” he said.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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