Thankfully, helping people with HIV/AIDS has for the most part transcended party lines over the last decade or so. In fact, George W. Bush has been hailed by many, if not all, as the president who did more for AIDS sufferers and AIDS prevention worldwide than any other president.
But oh how things have changed in the GOP in just a few short years.
AIDS, which had been recognized as a health epidemic since 1981, was not an issue at either major political party’s national convention until 1992, when Elizabeth Glaser and Bob Hattoy, both HIV positive, spoke at the Democrats' confab in New York, and then Republican Mary Fisher spoke about her HIV-positive status at the GOP convention in Houston.
Fisher, a staff member in the Ford White House, got a warm reception during her poignant 13-minute speech at the convention, which interestingly is also remembered for Pat Buchanan's infamous culture war speech. It has been said that Fisher’s speech changed the way many Republicans looked at the disease and led to more funding and support for AIDS research.
But can you imagine if the Republicans of 2012 had put Mary Fisher, who is still alive, or anyone else who is HIV positive on the convention stage in Tampa this week?
Several AIDS activists think a Romney-Ryan White House would be a disastrous setback for the national and worldwide HIV/AIDS community. They could be right.
While a study released in May showed that the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), created by Bush in 2003, prevented 741,000 deaths worldwide between 2004 and 2008, Mitt Romney told reporters during the primary campaign that he would be "very reluctant" to fund this or any other HIV/AIDS global program because of the deficit.
As for Paul Ryan, in 2008 he voted against a bill that would reauthorize funding for Bush's AIDS relief program, and 66 percent of the time he has voted against programs related to the AIDS Drugs Assistance Program, which provides HIV treatments to low-income Americans
To his credit, Sen. John McCain mentioned AIDS during his speech this week at the convention. But it’s not an issue that resonates with many in the GOP in 2012. This is a very different party than the one I grew up admiring. It’s a different party even than it was eight years ago when Bush was re-elected.
AIDS remains an epidemic in many places worldwide, including the American South, the site of both political conventions this year. According to a recent Los Angeles Times piece, the South has the highest rate of AIDS deaths of any U.S. region, the largest numbers of adolescents and adults living with HIV, and the fewest resources to fight the epidemic.
Timothy Brown, the first person to be "cured" of HIV and founder of The Timothy Ray Brown Foundation of the World AIDS Institute, said in a recent statement:
“In 1992, the political establishment began taking HIV and AIDS seriously when Mary Fisher, Elizabeth Glaser, and Bob Hattoy took the courageous step to address a prime-time audience at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. America suddenly had three proud, wonderful faces to see that AIDS does not discriminate; AIDS was no longer 'just' a San Francisco disease or a gay disease.”
Brown continued, “I honor these three heroes on this 20th anniversary for their bravery and wish all three were still with us to see that a cure is in sight. These historic speeches served as one of the transformational milestones on the path toward AIDS awareness. I want all HIV-positive people to be cured. But we must all insist that we dramatically strengthen cure research so that I no longer stand as the first, perhaps only, person cured of this horrific disease.”
Brown continues to do all he can to keep HIV/AIDS in the national spotlight. To borrow a quote from George W., who blew it on Katrina but who was and remains a champion for AIDS patients, "You're doing a heck of a job, Brownie."