DETROIT – Matt Foreman, head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, who stirred up the audience attending Creating Change conference when he said Friday that HIV is a "gay disease", expanded on his statement in an interview Saturday.
"HIV isn't just a gay disease but it is a gay disease in the United States," Foreman said. "I would agree that we have seperated 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 a controversy among activists gathered in Detroit for the NGLTF Creating Change Conference. As the leader of the Task Force, which is the oldest national LGBT rights organization, Foreman's is a widely watched and quoted activist for the LBGT community. Some have expressed concern his statement will be used by right-wing activists to bolster their battle against HIV/AIDS funding.
Since it first appeared, the disease has been perceived in the U.S. 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," a history of the epidemic in the U.S., have said the perception of HIV 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, which has 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."
Dr. Renee McCoy, director of Degtroit's department of health and welfare HIV/AIDS programs, said she supported Foreman's comment. "We have been avoiding taking ownership of HIV and we keep passing it around," said McCoy. "Maybe the new strategy is to name the communities."
"I don't have a problem with him saying it is a gay disease," she added. "I do have an issue with other groups who are dispropotionately impacted not taking ownership. It was a wise and courageous thing for him to do."
McCoy also noted that the context of the speech, where it was given was important.
"We have to contextualize who has this disease based on our audience. There were not enough African-American leaders at the conference to have that great an impact on the African-American community. They just did not hear it. They are not listening to words from that audience," she said. "The danger here is the African-Americans, women, hispanics and others didn't take their cue from that and go back and say 'lets look at the impact of HIV/AIDS on our community.' I would not have any problem if every damn group in the country was claiming the disease as there own."
Jake Distel, the executive director of the Lansing Area AIDS Network, is worried about the impact of Foreman's statement.
"I think the statement is unfortunate. we have worked for many years to make sure people are aware this is not a gay disease… it is a disease of opportunity," Distel said. He said a lot of public discussion about whether or not HIV is a gay disease may also have negative impacts on his organization's partnerships with groups who have traditionally shied away from HIV because it was perceived as a gay disease, and he expressed a fear that such a discussion will act as a barrier for people to get tested.
"We resisted calling it a gay disease and it still is going on so maybe something else could work," McCoy countered Distel.
Sean Strub, the founder of POZ magazine, which is for and about HIV-positive people, 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 effecting 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, Foreman said, "and it is about how do we harness the political power of the LBGT community to combat HIV in the LBGT community."