Obama criticized over AIDS test remark
by Lisa Keen
Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois) has come under criticism from some in the gay and AIDS communities who objected to one of his responses in a debate last week and said it contributed to the ongoing stigma of HIV/AIDS in the African American community.
Obama had just responded to the question noting how AIDS stigma had impacted the African American community, when he interjected to clarify a comment made by Senator Joe Biden (D-Delaware), who pointed out that both he and Obama had been tested for HIV.
The question to the Democratic candidates during the PBS-sponsored debate at Howard University June 28 was, "What is the plan to stop and protect these young people from [the HIV/AIDS] scourge?" It was the first time the candidates had been asked in a nationally televised forum about HIV/AIDS and the LGBT community understandably took note. By the time every candidate had his or her 60 seconds to say how they would prevent HIV from spreading to African American youth, there was a lot to be noted.
According to the reporter who asked the question, Michel Martin of National Public Radio, a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that African American teens comprise 17 percent of the U.S. teenaged population but 69 percent of its teenaged HIV cases.
Obama suggested that, "One of the things that we have to overcome is a stigma that still exists in our communities."
"We don't talk about this. We don't talk about it in the schools; sometimes, we don't talk about it in the churches. It has been an aspect of, sometimes, homophobia," he said, gesturing toward himself but seeming to speak about society in general.
While many gays were happy to hear Obama raise the issue of homophobia surrounding the response to AIDS, there was some consternation and mixed interpretations over what he said later. Biden had just taken the liberty of telling the audience that Obama had taken an HIV test. After Biden finished speaking, Obama asked for the floor.
"I just got to make clear, I got tested with Michelle, when we were in Kenya in Africa. I don't want any confusion here about what's going on," said Obama, as the audience laughed and applauded. "I was tested with my wife, in public." Moderator Tavis Smiley said he was "sure Michelle appreciates you clarifying that."
Some members of the LGBT community watching the debate or hearing it afterwards said they took Obama's remarks simply as an effort to inject some humor at a time when many in the audience were, no doubt, surprised that Biden would publicly disclose such personal information about another person. But others flinched.
"I think Biden was wrong in mentioning Obama's getting tested," said Ronald Johnson, deputy executive director of AIDS Action. "But Obama just needlessly played into some underlying homophobia in the black community. By saying he wanted to make it clear, he was saying, 'I don't want anybody to get the wrong idea.' He was needlessly saying, in effect, 'I'm not gay' and getting a cheap laugh at the expense of gay men and black gay men."
"I'm not going to war with him over it," said Johnson, who is black, gay, and HIV-positive, "but you didn't have to go down that track. He could have taken an opportunity to educate â€“ to say, 'Everyone should get tested, but it's a private matter. It's for me to say.'"
Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said he can believe Obama was "looking for a moment of levity" but "unfortunately, it gave the impression that it's a bad thing to get an HIV test â€“ or that you have to explain why you got an HIV test."
"It shows how difficult it still is for our country's leaders to talk about sex and HIV," said Foreman. "It clearly makes everyone uncomfortable and nervous. Here we're talking about this incredibly important subject ï¿½ and it becomes something to titter about."
Stampp Corbin, a recently appointed national LGBT liaison for the Obama campaign, said he found it a little "disconcerting" that any LGBT person could read something negative into the senator's remark.
"I can understand how some things can be misinterpreted," said Corbin, who is African American and has served on the boards of the Human Rights Campaign and the Columbus AIDS Task Force, in Ohio. But Corbin said he interpreted it as simply seeking to clarify â€“ given that most people get an HIV test because of sex outside of marriage or a relationship or because of IV drug abuse â€“ that those weren't the reasons in this case.
In fact, Obama and his wife Michelle took an HIV test during a trip to Kenya last summer as a public education event at the request of the CDC. Although his trip was publicized by ABC News and the New York Times , Obama was not yet a candidate for president, so very few people probably knew the reason behind his taking the test. And Corbin conceded that the senator "could have been a little clearer" by explaining those circumstances.
"It wasn't a homophobic remark at all," said Corbin, "and at the end of the day, you have to look at his record. It speaks volumes."
For her part, Senator Hillary Clinton (D-New York) triggered a spontaneous standing ovation from many of the women in the audience when she said, "If HIV/AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34 there would be an outrage, an outcry in this country." She went on to say that, among other things which had been mentioned by other candidates, she's working to increase funding for the Ryan White CARE Act for AIDS treatment "because there are a lot of women, particularly, who are becoming infected in poor rural areas, as well as underserved urban areasï¿½"
AIDS Action's Johnson noted that Clinton's remarks appeared to be an effort to mend fences with the black community, who was angry with her last year when she held up funding of the CARE Act. Clinton was seeking a formula for distribution of the funds that would benefit larger population states â€“ such as New York, Illinois, and California â€“ saying the proposal to change that formula threatened to "destabilize existing systems of care and devastate, even destroy the ability of high-prevalence communities to address needs." The Gay Men's Health Crisis and other AIDS groups applauded Clinton's work on the bill. But some black organizations felt the formula should take into account that a disproportionate percentage of the population of smaller states, particularly in the South, were African American citizens with low incomes.
"If we don't begin to take it seriously and address [AIDS] the way we did back in the nineties when it was primarily a gay men's disease, we will never get the services and the public education we need," said Clinton last week, to an enthusiastic response from the crowd.
The audience in the auditorium for last week's debate was primarily African American, many of them prominent, including the Reverend Al Sharpton, Princeton professor Cornel West, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, and Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman.
A similar debate among Republicans is scheduled for September.