Gay Community Won Battles on Marriage, But May Be Losing the War on HIV/AIDS

The Human Rights Campaign spends millions on gay marriage, but almost nothing fighting HIV/AIDS.

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As the Supreme Court heard arguments in March for the two gay marriage cases it decided last week, one image was shared again and again, adorning the Facebook and Twitter pages of brands, celebrities and political leaders: an equal sign in red, the color synonymous with love.

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It was only fitting that the logo of the Human Rights Campaign would become the symbol of the two gay marriage wins at the Supreme Court last week – on California's same-sex marriage ban, and on federal benefits for gay couples. HRC, the largest LGBT group in the country, had thrown an enormous amount of resources behind the fight for gay marriage. Its "Millions for Marriage" campaign had, quite literally, raised millions.

But while the HRC has racked up win after win on marriage, it may be quietly losing another, harder battle, a battle some say it hasn't fought very hard to win: the fight against HIV/AIDS.

In December 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released startling new data that showed HIV was still plaguing the gay community. While new HIV infections had remained steady in the general public between 2008 and 2010, infections had risen by an incredible 22 percent in young gay men. Gay men represented two-thirds of new infections. And nearly 6,000 gay men were dying of AIDS every year.

The Kaiser Health Foundation recently described the problem of HIV in the city of Washington, where the HRC and many other big LGBT groups are headquartered, as "as epidemic on par with some developing nations."

"Gay and bisexual men remain at the epicenter of the HIV/AIDS epidemic," says Jonathan Mermin, the director of the CDC's division of HIV/AIDS prevention. "But HIV is not always at the top of the list of priorities for LGBT organizations."

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When HRC spokesman Michael Cole-Schwartz lists off the priorities for the organization, the list is long: gay marriage, workplace nondiscrimination protections, safe schools, corporate support and benefits for employees, fostering positive places of worship. He doesn't name HIV/AIDS.

Choosing priorities, Cole-Schwartz says, is a "balancing act" and the issue of HIV/AIDS is one he says "thankfully we haven't had to deal with too much." Most of HRC's work on the disease, he says, is done through partnerships or coalitions.

It's not just the HRC. HIV/AIDS isn't a top priority for any of the three major LGBT groups in the U.S.: not the HRC, or the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), or the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) – who together are somewhat pejoratively known as "Gay Inc."

"'Gay Inc.' is interested in military, marriage, and money," says Michael Petrelis, a gay and AIDS activist, in reference to the campaigns against the military policy of "don't ask, don't tell," which was overturned in 2010, and the Defense of Marriage Act, which was ruled unconstitutional last week. "But for the millions of gay people who don't want to be soldiers, who don't want to get married, where's the advocacy?" he says.

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Peter Staley, a gay activist who founded the Treatment Action Group, a HIV/AIDS activist organization, also uses the term.

"The recent rise of HIV/AIDS ... is huge and it's not talked about because 'Gay Inc.' says nothing about it," he says.

In a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, Staley urged 'Gay Inc.' to allocate 10 percent of its budget to fighting HIV. He estimates the groups currently spend less than 1 percent, a number HRC said it couldn't confirm or deny because it doesn't break down its spending by issue type, while GLAAD and NGLTF didn't respond to request for comment. (HRC's total budget is more than $40 million.)

Internal Revenue Tax forms for all three groups mention a number of policy focuses but make no mention of HIV/AIDS.

"When you have the largest gay group in the country doing small things that really are just tokenism, how can we argue to the country that the government should care?" Staley says.