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President Bush walked toward the Oval Office with 4-year-old Baron Mosima Loyiso Tantoh of South Africa, whose mother is HIV-positive, after speaking about AIDS relief in 2007.

Mandel Ngan, AFP/Getty Images

David Benkof: The best president on AIDS? It's W.

  • Article by: DAVID BENKOF
  • July 1, 2008 - 6:31 PM

When I became a gay activist in 1990, HIV/AIDS was one of the key priorities of the movement I joined. Fighting AIDS was promoted as an important reason for gays and lesbians to help elect President Bill Clinton in 1992. Yet now that the gay white men in American cities who are the main funders of the LGBT movement are no longer dying quite so often from AIDS, the lesbian and gay community has moved on to other issues, such as marriage, while millions of people, many of them men of color who have sex with men, are still suffering from HIV-related illness.

It is unquestionable that George W. Bush has done more to fight HIV/AIDS than any president in American history, including Clinton. The people pushing Bush to fight the epidemic at home and abroad are overwhelmingly conservative Christians -- the same people we keep hearing gay leaders tar as narrow-minded and bigoted. Well, those narrow-minded bigots (who never had the president's ear during the Clinton administration) deserve far more credit for relieving suffering from HIV in this decade than gay men and lesbians did in the previous two decades combined.

Under George W. Bush:

•The United States spends more than $3 billion a year, with more to come, on the president's initiative to treat, prevent and care for millions of suffering people worldwide. Bush's AIDS plan is the largest health initiative ever dedicated to a single disease. By contrast, Clinton's last budget contained less than a billion dollars total for both domestic prevention and global AIDS. And instead of trying to help people get the medicine they needed, Clinton's Justice Department actually sued people and governments worldwide for trying to produce generic antiretrovirals.

•The White House is trying to repeal the heinous restriction on foreign visitors and immigrants with HIV, a policy the supposedly progay Clinton administration actually signed into law. Because of Bush, we may finally have international AIDS conferences in our country again, something that never happened in the pervious administration.

•The president has not hesitated to appoint openly gay experts on the disease to top administration positions, including physician Mark R. Dybul to an ambassador-level HIV post and both National AIDS Policy Coordinator Scott Evertz and his successor, Joseph O'Neill. If bigoted Christians were pulling the strings at the Bush administration, why does Bush keep promoting openly gay men? By contrast, President Clinton had no openly gay AIDS czars. Bush's AIDS appointments aren't about winning gay votes any more than his appointment of two African-American secretaries of state was calculated to win black votes. He wants the most qualified people doing important jobs, whatever their identities.

These undeniable facts and others relating to the Bush administration's outstanding record on AIDS have done little to convince gays and lesbians that on at least one of their top issues, Republicans have performed better than Democrats. When challenged with this inconsistency, most lesbian and gay activists will point to Bush's championing of abstinence education, as if it were a bad idea.

It is undeniable that abstinence is a more effective way of preventing sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy than condoms. I know a gay man who was sexually active for more than a decade. He used a condom every time, yet contracted several STDs. Subsequently, in seven years of abstaining from sex, he did not suffer from a single crab louse, herpes sore or genital wart.

I imagine an argument can be made for teaching proper condom use to high school juniors and seniors. But opponents of abstinence education advocate starting condom instruction to junior-high students or younger. Why? By definition, the overwhelming majority of sixth- through 10th-graders are beneath the age of consent. All sex without consent is rape. So Bush's opponents are promoting, essentially, "safe rape" education in public schools. Instead of focusing on making sure that girls aren't impregnated and that boys don't get HIV from their rapists, shouldn't we do our best to stop nonconsensual sex altogether?

In my eyes, "marriage equality" is a far less important gay and lesbian issue than the fight against HIV/AIDS. Virtually the entire gay community felt that way when I first became a gay activist. After all, what lesbian ever died a horrible, painful death because the government called her relationship a domestic partnership instead of a marriage?

For years I've been hearing, "How can you be a gay Republican?" I'm proud that in 2008 I can answer, "Because on one of the gay community's top priorities, one I care a lot about, Republicans outshine Democrats hands down."

David Benkof is the author (as David Bianco) of "Gay Essentials: Facts for Your Queer Brain." He blogs at GaysDefendMarriage.com.

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