Marsha Martin, executive director of AIDS Action, the national lobbying group that represents HIV service organizations on Capitol Hill, is part of the host committee for a fundraiser called “Salute to A Second Term” to be held in conjunction with Pres. George W. Bush’s inaugural on January 20.
The event, to benefit the controversial AIDS Responsibility Project, run by gay Bush supporter Abner Mason, will honor Bush administration AIDS officials.
“I think it was a mistake,” said Ronald Johnson, a former chair of AIDS Action and a board member representing the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, where he serves as associate executive director. “I don’t think it is appropriate. AIDS Action shouldn’t endorse a partisan event or salute the second Bush administration.”
Johnson said that the president’s AIDS policies in his first term were “all but negligent of the domestic AIDS agenda and not living up to its promises on the global AIDS agenda.”
He said that the board of AIDS Action was meeting by conference call to discuss a response to the controversy Wednesday afternoon, but by press time no statement had been made available to Gay City News. A recording at the AIDS Action office said that its offices were closed until January 3. A message left on the cell phone of communications director, Sara Whitehead, was not returned.
Johnson declined comment on the AIDS Responsibility Project, whose website explains that it is dedicated to supporting Bush administration AIDS policies.
“I don’t know much about them. I need to do my homework,” Johnson said, even though he was quoted in a 2003 press release praising Martin’s participation in an AIDS Responsibility Project trip to Africa with congressional and administration officials. He said he was “responding to the trip to Africa,” not its sponsorship by the Project.
Mason, a veteran Log Cabin Republican, is chair of the international committee on the Presidential Advisory Committee on HIV/AIDS.
This story was broken on December 24 by veteran gay journalist Doug Ireland on his Direland.com website. Ireland calls Mason “a Republican hack” and a “drug industry stooge.”
Sharonann Lynch, co-director of international policy for Health Gap, a US-based activist group focused on access to affordable AIDS treatment in developing countries, said that Mason’s group “is a brutish front group for the pharmaceutical industry that is actively and systematically trying to undermine the confidence in generic drugs for HIV.”
Some developing nations staggered by the spread of HIV have begun developing generic equivalents to expensive AIDS drugs still protected by patents. That effort has spawned considerable controversy throughout the world over competing issues of intellectual property rights and the need to address a devastating human tragedy.
Commenting on the AIDS Responsibility Project, Lynch said, “They seek to scare off U.S. congressmen and the administration from supporting such projects as the World Health Organization and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria because [those groups] condone the use of generic AIDS drugs that are affordable and effective.”
Julie Davids, director of Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project, a Brooklyn-based group that focuses on economic justice issues regarding drug access in the U.S., said that the AIDS Responsibility Project is “a well-positioned force of Big Pharma interests seeking to snatch quality low-cost AIDS drugs out of the hands of people with HIV in poor countries.”
When reached by telephone, Mason told Gay City News that the invitation to the “Salute” event was a “draft” and a “mistake” that “incorrectly implied that it was a partisan event. It is not. I described it to [Martin] as a non-partisan event to acknowledge the inauguration, which is a civic event that all Americans can share in.”
Mason added, “The dinner is an opportunity to celebrate the inauguration and rededicate ourselves to aggressive U.S. leadership in the fight against HIV both here and abroad.”
Asked about the AIDS Responsibility Project, Mason said that 20 to 25 percent of the group’s funding comes from pharmaceutical companies, but insisted that “every AIDS organization” takes such money and that these companies “play a crucial role in the fight against HIV, particularly abroad.”
On the issue of generics, he said, “We cannot allow drugs to be given to people if they are not safe and effective. Some [generic drugs] do not meet those standards.”
Mason said the Bush administration’s position on abstinence-only education regarding HIV transmission has been misrepresented.
“I think they have a balanced approach—abstinence, being faithful, condoms,” he said. Mason also praised “the way Martin has tried to reach out and broaden the coalition” to fight AIDS. “I think there is more common ground than people realize.”
As for diversity on his own board of five people, at least three of whom are Log Cabin members, Mason said, “We are not a membership organization. We’re looking to expand it.”
Response from veteran AIDS activists to Martin’s endorsement of the Salute-Bush event were swift and caustic.
Sean Strub, founder of POZ magazine, told Ireland, “Why don’t we just dissolve AIDS Action, spend the money on cyanide pills and speed the whole thing up.”
Larry Kramer wrote, “Is AIDS Action turning into a second and equally as useless HRC [Human Rights Campaign], run by idiots who do not know the first thing about activism?”
The Log Cabin Republicans did not respond to a request for a comment on Mason and his group, but Chris Barron, the group’s policy director, said, “Marsha Martin is a tremendous advocate for HIV/AIDS who has realized that AIDS is not a partisan issue.” He also said, “Pres. Bush is the duly elected president of our country. The election of 2004 is over and it is time for folks interested in advancing HIV/AIDS issues to move forward and find ways to work with the president’s administration.
The Log Cabin group did not endorse Bush for re-election because of his support for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.