Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Preacher, the President-Elect and AIDS

By Steve Villano

I was for the election of Barack Obama as President almost two years before his inauguration as President of the United States, in a little less than two weeks. No political figure had inspired me as much about the future, since several giants of my past: JFK, RFK, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mario M. Cuomo. I saw in Obama the same level of hope, promise, intelligence, evidence-based decision-making, compassion and possibility for the future.

I attended fund-raisers for Obama, contributed money on-line, did telephone canvassing for his election, and contacting friends in key states around the nation urging them to work hard for his election. I was elated over his sweeping victory, as a victory of common sense, compassion, and intelligent problem-solving, over years of hatred, division, and stupidly ignoring reality. As someone who has worked hard to fight HIV/AIDS, and the stigma surrounding the disease, over the past several decades, I was optimistic that, in Obama, we would have a leader who understood the magnitude of the crisis, particularly in communities of color.

The vote in favor of Proposition 8 in California—banning same sex marriages which the state’s highest court said were legal—was particularly strong in Black and Latino communities across California. Friends who logged many hours going door-to-door both for Obama and to defeat Proposition 8, talked of feeling torn apart—the more votes they pulled out for Obama in communities of color, the more votes they were delivering to the opponents of equal marriage rights for all. Stigma against people with AIDS in communities of color—which we know prevents infected individuals from getting treatment and care-- was only trumped by discrimination against gays & lesbians.

Only Obama had the stature and the credibility, we reasoned, to go back into those communities of color—which gave him overwhelming support—and teach them that stigma, as Nelson Mandela said, kills people. And we were confident he would.

Then, along came Rick Warren, whose long record of vile, gay-bashing statements wasn’t bad enough to disqualify him for a speaking role at the most inclusive inauguration in generations. In defending the choice of Warren to invoke a divine purpose for the historic event, Obama’s minions pointed to Warren’s work on AIDS in Africa—although none of them actually knew what that work was. It’s too bad they didn’t do their homework, the way Max Blumenthal did in January 7, 2009’s Daily Beast.

If they did, they would have discovered that Warren’s work in Africa on AIDS, included supporting a weird, witch-hunting Charismatic pastor who burned condoms in the streets of Kampala, Uganda, and campaigned to have gays imprisoned on the basis of sexual orientation.

That kind of work on AIDS is nothing to be pointed to with pride by Obama’s top aides on “Meet the Press,” or anywhere else. It’s a disgrace.

Let Rick Warren attend the inauguration, along with clergy from every faith. But, let him listen quietly while Bishop Desmond Tutu delivers an invocation message of inclusion and compassion in which all the world can believe.

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