World AIDS Day was Dec. 1, as it has been every Dec. 1 for the last 30 years. And the day before, on Nov. 30, President George H.W. Bush died. While these two things may appear unrelated, they are not.
Bush was, of course, vice president during the reign of President Ronald Reagan, a man who ignored AIDS and the predominately gay men it was killing. Things didn’t exactly improve once Bush became president.
AIDS has killed a lot of people all over the world. And over the years, the policies of Republican administrations sure didn’t help matters. Faux morality crusaders have seemed more interested in punishing people with HIV and AIDS than in preventing the spread of the disease.
Which is why the choice of Vice President Mike, “I’m a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order,” Pence to deliver the White House’s 2018 World AIDS Day address is so fitting. And so gross.
Pence was himself one of those faux morality crusaders when he represented Indiana in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2001, he sounded the alarm on CNN about the danger of condoms and then Secretary of State Colin Powell’s recklessness in advising people to use them. Pence called Powell’s advice “very sad.”
“Colin Powell had an opportunity here to reaffirm this president’s commitment to abstinence as the best choice for our young people,” he said to Wolf Blitzer. “The other part is that, frankly, condoms are a very, very poor protection against sexually transmitted diseases, and in that sense ... the secretary of state may be inadvertently misleading millions of young people and endangering lives.”
It is, of course, not true that condoms provide poor protection against STDs. When used properly, they have a reputation for working pretty darn well. Of course, if you believe that abstinence is the only way and should be the only option, well then a condom’s probably going to seem pretty scary since people use them when they have S-E-X.
Pence didn’t want people in Africa, where AIDS has ravaged so many, to use condoms, either. Especially not if the United States was paying for them.
“The timeless values of abstinence and marital faithfulness before condom distribution are the cure for what ails the families of Africa,” he said on the House floor in 2003. “It is important that we not just send them money, but we must send them values that work.”
Note that he’s basically saying that Africa lacks values and ignorant Africans keep on sexing and cheating so why should the U.S. have to pay for it?
Pence’s awful history on the subject of AIDS continued as he moved up the political ranks. When he was the governor of Indiana, he cut public-health funding and rejected a needle-exchange program, because of “morals,” even when there was an uptick in HIV infections. When he finally relented a bit, the number of infections went down.
And now people are pissed because Pence didn’t even mention the gay community in his 2018 address. It is, no doubt, an intentional omission.
And in some ways it feels like a relief. I mean, the previous examples show that when Pence does discuss specific populations, whether they be Africans, drug users or fornicators, he has a tendency to say really insulting stuff. There’s little doubt that his take on gay people and AIDS would be a poor one.
But, of course, those who remember the history of the AIDS epidemic know how harmful it is to not be seen or acknowledged. As ACT UP has taught us: Silence = Death.
“We’ve come so far, but there’s so much farther to go to be able to end the AIDS Crisis,” ACT UP’s Eric Sawyer told Out Magazine. “There’s still an inordinate amount of fear and hysteria around HIV that prevents people from testing, coming out about their status, and that triggers all kinds of negative, hateful language directed at positive people.”
And, of course, in the case of Pence — gay sex, extra-marital sex, drug use trouble Pence’s conscience. So he has spent his political career trying to prevent these things. The deaths? At best, Pence considers them an afterthought. At worst, a divine retribution.
D’Anne Witkowski is a poet, writer and comedian living in Michigan with her wife and son. She has been writing about LGBT politics for over a decade. Follow her on Twitter @MamaDWitkowski.