Matt Foreman sparks controversy at national Creating Change conference
by Todd Heywood . Special to Q-Notes
Matt Foreman: ‘HIV/AIDS is not a priority for the vast majority of LGBT national, state and local organizations.’
DETROIT, Mich. — In a speech about the state of the LGBT movement, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) Executive Director Matt Foreman took the collected 1,500 activists from around the world to task on HIV/AIDS issues.
“We cannot deny this is a gay disease,” Foreman said to a muted response. “We have to own up to it.”
Foreman’s comments spurred controversy at the 20th Annual Creating Change Conference, held here Feb. 6-10. As the leader of the sponsoring Task Force, the oldest national gay rights organization still in existence, his public claim that HIV is a “gay disease” flies in the face of over 25 years of AIDS activism and political battles.
To bolster his remarks, Foreman cited statistics showing the disease in the United States is still widespread in the gay community. About 68 percent of HIV/AIDS infections are among men who have sex with men, he said.
“Forty-five percent of African-American men in most urban areas have HIV,” he continued. “And what do we do when we hear that statistic? We, as a community, give a collective shrug. For that response to happen internally and externally (of the gay community), it’s appalling.”
However, Foreman did not just call on the LGBT community to take the disease more seriously, he also attacked the Bush administration for what he said were its failures on HIV/AIDS prevention, particularly with regard to African-American men who have sex with men (MSM).
“This disease has been around for 26 years,” he said. “For only one of 29 grants and programs from the federal government to be addressing the group most at risk is wrong. If these things don’t show the government thinks gay black men are expendable, I don’t know what does.”
Foreman expanded and defended his statements one day after issuing them.
“HIV isn’t just a gay disease but it is a gay disease in the United States,” he said in the interview with the Michigan Messenger. “I would agree that we have separated HIV from the gay community over the last 15 years. That is why HIV/AIDS is not a priority for the vast majority of LGBT national, state and local organizations.”
“I consider this to be the gay community’s Bill Cosby moment,” said Derek Smiertka, executive director of statewide gay rights group Michigan Equality and a board member of the Midwest AIDS Prevention Project. He was referring to an incendiary speech by Cosby that took the African-American community to task for many of its societal problems.
“Although I disagree scientifically that it is a gay disease, our behavior reflects poorly when we look at hard numbers,” Smietka added. “We really have to take a hard look in the mirror before we start looking at other parts of the community. A good long hard look in the mirror.”
Since it first appeared, AIDS has been perceived in the U.S. as a gay disease. This led the Reagan administration to limit spending on the epidemic until there were concerns of it spreading to the “broader community,” as then-Health and Human Services Secretary Margret Heckler said in the mid ’80s.
Many historians and journalists, including author Randy Shilts who’s book “And The Band Played On” is considered the quintessential history of the epidemic in the U.S., have said the perception of HIV as a gay disease allowed it to spread through intravenous drug users, into blood products, and then into the heterosexual community.
Some Creating Change attendees expressed concern that Foreman’s statement could be used by right-wing activists like James Dobson of Focus on the Family, who has been beating the “HIV is a gay disease” drum since the ’80s.
Foreman responded bluntly to his critics. “Fuck what James Dobson has to say. I don’t give a damn what right-wing forces are going to say. They lie and distort at will. So if they don’t have something like my statement, they will make something up. We should never not speak truth because of them.”
Sean Strub, the founder of POZ, a magazine for and about HIV-positive people, supports Foreman’s statement.
“What Matt meant was we as a gay community have to take more responsibility for the epidemic. Too much of the community has relegated the epidemic as some other community’s concern,” Strub said. “Is it volatile to frame the issue that way in a public forum? Yes, I think it is and I have no doubt there are entities out there that will twist Matt’s words.”
Both Foreman and Strub said the issue is not just HIV, but institutional racism that is fueling the spread of the epidemic among black gay men.
“Over the last 15 years as people have lived longer and the epidemic moved predominately to effecting people of color, we have lost our anger,” said Foreman. “Of course this is not just HIV among gay black men. It’s other African-American health issues not being addressed at large…the system is racist.”
“White people don’t see the epidemic as vividly and painfully as much as they once did,” Strub said. “It has largely been relegated to other communities. And it is driven in large part by racism.”
“I dont blame our community for the fact that [men who have sex with men] still account for nearly three-quarters of men living with HIV. I hold our government accountable,” said Foreman.
Still, he declared it essential that the LGBT community become re-engaged in the war against HIV/AIDS.
“I think the dialogue is beginning and it is about how do we harness the political power of the LGBT community to combat HIV in the LGBT community,” Foreman said.
— Todd Heywood is the capitol correspondent for Between the Lines, the statewide LGBT newspaper of Michigan, as well as a Fellow for the Center for Independent Media. His work can be found regularly on www.Pridesource.com and www.MichiganMessenger.com