1997 Report Card on America and AIDS Discrimination

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World AIDS Day
November 30, 1997

(NEW YORK, December 1, 1997) -- Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund recognized World AIDS Day Monday by issuing its annual report card on AIDS discrimination and policy in America, flunking many public officials and media figures, while top honorees include a veteran AIDS physician and Miss America.

"1997 has been a year of extremes," Lambda Executive Director Kevin Cathcart said from the organization's New York headquarters. "Despite incredible progress in treatment, this year has seen harsh and damaging reactions from both the government and the media," he said.

Issuing grades from 'A' to 'F,' Cathcart added, "The positive developments in AIDS treatment are neither unqualified nor, as shown here, have they been paralleled by equally positive developments in AIDS prevention and in fair treatment of those with HIV."

Failing grades went to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Rep. Tom Coburn (R-OK), Butler County, Missouri Prosecuting Attorney Carl Miller, as well as pundit William F. Buckley and tabloid television hosts Geraldo Rivera and Montel Williams.

There also were several "D's" -- one going to Drug Czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey, and one to the Board of Education in Portage, Michigan, for refusing to admit a child with HIV until a lawsuit was threatened.

Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, a New York physician, and Kate Shindle, Miss America, received top grades. Lambda also gave "A's" to the United Nations AIDS Program, the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, the Minnesota Department of Commerce, and the Illinois Supreme Court. Also in New York, Lambda AIDS Project Director Catherine Hanssens said, "This is not an attempt to name every hero and coward in this ongoing public health battle. Lambda seeks to highlight some of our unsung heros as well as the damage done by some of the very people and agencies that could be saving lives and relieving suffering."

Lambda, which brought the nation's first AIDS discrimination lawsuit in 1983, is the oldest and largest legal organization dedicated to the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV and AIDS. With its National Headquarters in New York and regional offices in Atlanta, Chicago, and Los Angeles, Lambda celebrates its twenty- fifth anniversary in 1998.


Some Notable Underachievers
Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Stubbornly defended its AZT research on poor and pregnant women in Africa, offering placebos when the women thought they were getting treatment. The CDC also has announced its support of names reporting of those with HIV, and refuses to change its guidelines which allow hospitals and clinics to remove personnel with HIV from their jobs, despite lack of any scientific or public health research supporting those policies.
United States Congress
Keeping the AIDS Drug Assistance Program alive, Congress saved itself from total failure this year. Its collective insistence on telling kids to just say no to sex as the AIDS prevention answer to increasing infection rates among youth dooms still more to an unnecessary early death.
Representative Tom Coburn
Diverting from his anti-gay, anti-marriage campaign, this Oklahoma Republican congress member grabs media attention with proposals for counting and naming those who test positive for HIV -- ensuring that even fewer people will get tested while misleading the public about how we can really stem the epidemic.
Drug Czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey
In the face of significant scientific evidence regarding marijuana's efficacy in relieving symptoms that plague many AIDS and cancer patients, he has threatened the medical licenses of doctors who prescribe marijuana for medical purposes, and campaigned against state medical marijuana initiatives. At least he stood up to those in Congress who wanted to ban all further federal research regarding the medical risks and benefits of marijuana.
The North Dakota Governor and Legislature
For passing the first law in the country to allow people suspected of being HIV+ to be detained without a hearing and forcibly tested for the virus.
Butler County, Missouri, Prosecuting Attorney Carl Miller
For criminally charging an HIV+ Missouri man for allegedly spitting during a heated traffic altercation. Miller decided to pursue a felony charge for "criminal transmission" despite his public acknowledgment that "the scientific evidence has not demonstrated thus far that saliva can transmit HIV." Never has and never will, Carl.
Portage Board of Education (PBOE), Portage, Michigan
For its knee-jerk exclusion of a nine-year-old student with HIV at the start of this school year. The only thing saving the PBOE from a failing grade was its decision, after consulting with public health officials, to allow the student to continue at her elementary school. Let's hope the lawsuit currently pending against PBOE teaches boards of education across the county to get the facts before they act.
Tabloid talk shows & other media that exploited young Chatauqua County, N.Y., women who had unsafe sex with an HIV+ man.
For flubbing a chance to promote real AIDS education and to examine complex needs of the young and poor. Geraldo Rivera, Montel Williams, and many others in media opted instead to sensationalize a tragic story, ignoring that HIV infection is preventable.
National Review/William F. Buckley
Home of pundit William F. Buckley, who apparently knows no shame in resurrecting his proposal of a decade ago that people with HIV should be tattooed. Similar muddy thinking seems to have inspired the National Review's decision to publish an ill-researched and poorly reasoned article actually arguing that Cuba's AIDS policies are a world model that the United States should adopt as its own.
Some Notable Achievers
United Nations AIDS Program (UNAIDS)
For putting the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to shame, and taking a hard look at 68 studies on sexual safety and HIV prevention in this country and around the world. These folks reported the truth about sex education: kids who participate in programs that educate about safe sex do not increase the likelihood of their sexual activity. Instead, they wait longer than other youth to have sex and are more careful in the type of sex they have.
Sandy Thurman
For swimming against the wave of support for names reporting. White House AIDS Czar Sandy Thurman has resisted the latest fashion in public health politics and publicly has stated that she remains unconvinced of any legitimate need to collect lists of persons testing positive for HIV. Thurman also has declared publicly her intention to persuade the CDC to study further viable alternatives to names reporting prior to issuing its contemplated recommendation for this measure early next year.
Joseph Sonnabend, M.D.
The only surviving founder of the 10-year-old PWA Health Group and the plaintiff in the first AIDS discrimination case in the country (when his co-op tried to evict his medical practice because he treated people with AIDS). Dr. Sonnabend continues to question authority and drug company hype, and plead for real prevention. History shows that Sonnabend's views frequently have been controversial, but almost always have been right.
Kate Shindle (Miss America)
For early identification of AIDS prevention as a priority during her reign; Shindle already has directed $10,000 in grants to lesbian and gay youth groups to promote HIV-related education. Impervious to potential political backlash, she showed she has much to offer as Miss America.
AIDS Foundation of Chicago (AFC)
For tireless and intensive lobbying and community mobilization efforts that prompted the State to approve an emergency $5 million appropriation this past spring to save ADAP in Illinois. This, and related appropriations, moved Illinois from having one of the worst to one of the nation's best ADAP programs.
Jane Gross, reporter for The New York Times
For her stand-out series covering HIV-exposure among young women in Chatauqua County in upstate New York. This reporter approached complex issues without preconceptions and was willing to dig for the tough facts. Hopefully, her efforts will not be overshadowed by The Times' recent descent into biased, sensational journalism in covering the gay community and AIDS organizations.
'413 Hope Street' and Damon Wayans
For trying to counter AIDS hysteria instead of feeding on it. Although Fox is considering dropping this series about a New York City outreach house for teens, this show has been sensitive and honest in handling HIV issues among real-life kids, whether gay or straight. Wayans created the show to thank the crisis center that supported him during his own troubled youth.
Minnesota Department of Commerce
For issuing a first-of-its-kind directive to all insurers doing business in Minnesota: that no company can refuse to insure individuals solely because the individual's spouse or partner is HIV positive.