Matt Foreman, head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, rocked the American gay community when he said Friday that HIV is a “gay disease.”
Read more in our exclusive on-the-ground report from Michigan Messenger’s Todd Heywood at the 20th National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change in Detroit, Mich.
First reported by Heywood, Foreman’s keynote speech on the state of the LGBT movement took gay activists to task for losing sight of the HIV/AIDS fight. The comment drew immediate reaction — a smattering of applause but mostly stunned silence. Foreman expanded on and defended his statement in an interview Saturday with Michigan Messenger.
“HIV isn’t just a gay disease but it is a gay disease in the United States,” said Foreman. “I would agree that we have separated HIV from the gay community over the last 15 years. That is why HIV/AIDS is not a priority for the vast majority of LBGT (lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender) national, state and local organizations.”
Foreman’s comments have spurred controversy among activists gathered in Detroit for the NGLTF Creating Change Conference.
As the leader of the Task Force, the nation’s oldest gay rights organization, his claim that HIV is a gay disease flies in the face of a quarter century of HIV/AIDS political battles. Foreman’s position makes him a widely watched and quoted activist for the LBGT community and many have expressed concern his statement will be used by right-wing activists to bolster their battle against HIV/AIDS funding.
“I consider this to be the gay community’s Bill Cosby moment,” said Derek Smiertka, executive director of Michigan Equality, a statewide gay rights organization based in Lansing, and who is on the board of the Midwest AIDS Prevention Project. Smietka was referring to a speech by Cosby that took the African American community to task for many of its problems. “Although I disagree scientifically that it is a gay disease, our behavior reflects poorly when we look at hard numbers. We really have to take a hard look in the mirror before we start looking at other parts of the community. A good long hard look in the mirror.”
Since it first appeared, the disease has been perceived in the United States as a gay disease. This led the Reagan administration to limit spending on the epidemic until there were concerns of it spreading to the “broader community,” as Reagan Health and Human Services Secretary Margret Heckler said in the mid-80s. Many historians and journalists, including Randy Shilts who wrote the book “And The Band Played On” — considered the quintessential history of the epidemic in the U.S. — have said the perception of HIV as a gay disease allowed it to spread through intravenous drug users, and into blood products, then into the heterosexual community.
Addressing concerns that right-wing activists, such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family, have been beating the drum of “HIV is a gay disease” since the ’80s, Foreman said: “Fuck what James Dobson has to say. I don’t give a damn what right wing forces are going to say. They lie and distort at will. So if they don’t have something like my statement, they will make something up. We should never not speak truth because of them.”
Sean Strub, the founder of POZ magazine, which chronicles the HIV epidemic in the U.S and overseas, supports Foreman’s statement.
“What Matt meant was we as a gay community have to take more responsibility for the epidemic. Too much of the community has relegated the epidemic as some other community’s concern,” Strub said. “Is it volatile to frame the issue that way in a public forum? Yes, I think it is and I have no doubt there are entities out there that will twist Matt’s words.”
Both Foreman and Strub said the issue is not just HIV, but the institutional racism that is fueling the spread of the epidemic among black gay men.
“Over the last 15 years as people have lived longer and the epidemic moved predominately to affecting people of color, we have lost our anger,” said Foreman. “Of course this is not just HIV among gay black men. It’s other African American health issues not being addressed at large … the system is racist.”
“White people don’t see the epidemic as vividly and painfully as much as they once did,” Strub said. “It has largely been relegated to other communities. And it is driven in large part by racism.”
“I dont blame our community for the fact that MSM [men who have sex with men] still account for nearly three quarters of men living with HIV. I hold our government accountable,” said Foreman.
Foreman and Strub both said it was essential that the LBGT community become re-engaged in the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
“I think the dialogue is beginning and it is about how do we harness the political power of the LBGT community to combat HIV in the LBGT community,” Foreman said.