Monday, October 6, 2003

An AIDS conference that received $300,000 in federal funds featured political criticism of the Bush administration and workshop programs on thwarting federally mandated abstinence education.

The United States Conference on AIDS (USCA) in New Orleans, sponsored in part by nine federal agencies, was marred by “Bush bashing,” said one veteran AIDS activist.

“It’s become politicized,” said David Miller, a founding member of the New York chapter of ACT-UP. “There were a lot of things that went on there this year that were politicized. I’m not a Republican or a Democrat. I don’t have any political affiliations other than the AIDS crisis.”

Sponsored by the National Minority AIDS Council (NMAC), the Sept. 18-21 conference at the New Orleans Hyatt Regency featured an entertainer who boasted that she had sexual relations with Vice President Dick Cheney.

To the tune of Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman,” actress-singer Jenifer Lewis sang that Mr. Cheney made her “feel like a natural woman,” after alluding to the Monica Lewinsky scandal and describing sex with the vice president.

“It was extremely graphic,” said Mr. Miller, who said that he and his wife, fellow activist Jeannie Gibbs — who are both infected with the AIDS virus — walked out of Miss Lewis’ performance at the “closing plenary luncheon” of the conference.

“It was risque to the point where it belonged on Bourbon Street,” Mr. Miller said.

But Carole Bernard, director of communications for NMAC, said Miss Lewis’ song was well-received.

“We do evaluations for all of our conference attendees, and the feedback that we have gotten is that they loved her song. People cheered and applauded,” she said.

Bill Pierce, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), a major sponsor of the conference, said: “This kind of behavior and action, it’s not smart. It distracts from the focus of reducing AIDS in America.”

The USCA received at least $300,000 in funding from several HHS agencies. The U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of Housing and Urban Development also were listed on the conference program as “government partners.”

In one USCA workshop, “Abstinence-Based vs. Comprehensive Sexuality Education,” Florida AIDS educator Harold Young criticized abstinence programs “and provided a blueprint to get abstinence education defunded and out of schools,” according to those who attended.

At another workshop, William Smith of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States said abstinence education is politically motivated and “harmful” to children.

“Certainly, the NMAC supports abstinence,” said Ms. Bernard, the NMAC spokeswoman, “but the workshops focused on certain realities that exist today, which prompt examining other options for keeping people healthy and safe.”

She said she was not aware of any “Bush bashing” at the New Orleans conference.

“I never heard of that, and that was certainly not our agenda,” Ms. Bernard said.

The four-day conference attracted about 2,800 participants, according to the NMAC.

NMAC, which receives $4.7 million a year in federal funds, supported protesters who shouted down HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson last year when he addressed an international AIDS conference in Barcelona, Spain.

“What we saw … in Barcelona was the response from the international AIDS community to [the Bush administrations] policy,” Paul A. Kawata, NMAC executive director, said after booing protesters forced Mr. Thompson to cut short his remarks at the July 2002 conference.

Among the HHS agencies that helped fund the U.S. conference this year were the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Office of AIDS Research and the Health Resources Services Administration.

“Those who continue to act in this manner, they need to wise up,” said Mr. Pierce, the HHS spokesman. “They hurt themselves. They’re not helpful to their own cause, because the average person out there would be troubled by this. That, in turn, causes increased scrutiny that again distracts from the purpose of reducing the number of AIDS cases.”

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