Bill Clinton's LGBT shame: Where was he then?

On AIDS, marriage and more, the record is sadly one of fear, cowardice and inaction

By Sean Strub

Published February 1, 2014 5:30PM (EST)

Bill Clinton              (AP/Pat Sullivan)
Bill Clinton (AP/Pat Sullivan)

Excerpted from "Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS and Survival"

POZ magazine did its best to be a thorn in the side of the Clinton administration, and hold the president accountable for promises he’d made during his campaign. They could not entirely ignore us because our criticism was on target.

Like many other people with HIV, I felt betrayed by Clinton, because I’d believed him during his campaign when he told my ACT UP colleague Bob Rafsky, “I feel your pain.” The pride I once felt at having been the first LGBT community publisher to endorse his campaign turned to regret when it became apparent that his promises were empty.

In our third issue, in August 1994, we published a feature on the fifty most important AIDS policy leaders in the United States. Kristine Gebbie, Clinton’s rubber-stamp AIDS czar, had recently resigned after accomplishing virtually nothing. “There was near unanimity among people we consulted that Gebbie should not be on the list,” I wrote in my column. “The board chairperson of one AIDS research group told me ‘including her would totally invalidate the credibility of this project. She is a laughingstock and not taken seriously by anyone working in AIDS whose judgment I respect.’ ”


Bob Hattoy was working in the White House, and we spoke several times a week. When POZ had inside information on the Clinton administration, it was usually Hattoy who had given us the tip. After the column on Gebbie came out, he cackled with glee, telling me, “Copies of POZ are sitting on every desk in the West Wing. They. Are. Pissed. I told them I couldn’t control what you write. But this is good; now they’re paying attention.”

That was the issue featuring Pedro Zamora on the cover. He was a handsome young Cuban-American who publicly chronicled his battle with AIDS on "The Real World." When Pedro died, the White House revealed that President Clinton had personally telephoned Pedro in his last days. Donna Shalala, whose record on AIDS as Clinton’s health and human services secretary was especially egregious, was quoted as saying, “I love Pedro.”

Most of the media, including the LGBT media, dutifully published the spin, but in my December 1994 column, I wrote, “If Shalala really ‘loves Pedro’ as she claims, she will kick some butt at the FDA, CDC, and NIH—all agencies under her supervision—to cut the red tape, expedite new treatments, dramatically increase anonymous testing, reempower the Office on Alternative Health and increase funding for prevention and care.”

Hattoy said their political cowardice stemmed in part from the gays-in-the-military debacle. It made Clinton’s top advisers skittish about anything to do with gay issues—as AIDS was then seen—so inaction was the default strategy.

After the December column, Hattoy asked that I use Xavier’s name instead of my own when calling him at the White House. If his coworkers knew he was communicating with POZ, it could jeopardize his job.

Though Clinton’s top aides were looking for an excuse to fire Hattoy, his personal friendship with the Clintons protected him, as well as his AIDS diagnosis. “The White House boys all thought I was going to die and nobody wanted to be the guy who fired the dying guy with AIDS,” Hattoy said.

After Bob committed several well-publicized gaffes (“gaffe” is Washingtonspeak for when a politician tells the truth), he was pushed out of the White House to a liaison position at the Department of the Interior. He was prohibited from providing quotes to any member of media without prior approval.

Hiding Hattoy didn’t change anything concerning the administration’s response to AIDS. Vincent Gagliostro, part of the art collective that created the “Silence=Death” image, created a poster for the inside back cover of the April 1995 issue that expressed the community’s dismay over Washington’s response to the epidemic. It was a black-and-white photograph of Clinton and Newt Gingrich with big guffawing smiles on their faces, two good old boys sharing a big joke. Vincent added a transparent red stripe across their smiles; the caption above read, “WIPE THAT SMILE OFF YOUR FACE,” and below, “AIDS IS A NATIONAL EMERGENCY.”


There was no AIDS issue during the Clinton years that was more pressing than lifting the ban on the use of federal money to fund needle-exchange programs. There was ample proof that such programs dramatically reduced HIV transmission; conversely, there was no evidence showing that they increased drug use. They were a key part of HIV-prevention strategies in many countries.

Early in the Clinton administration, Secretary Shalala passed the authority to lift the ban to Jocelyn Elders, the fearless surgeon general who later was forced to resign when she spoke frankly about sex education in schools. After the Republicans swept the 1994 congressional elections, Elders’s authority to take unilateral action reverted back to Shalala, who refused to lift the ban. When research showed a dramatic increase in young girls and women acquiring HIV through sex with older drug-injecting men, we laid the blame at Shalala’s feet. These were infections that might have been prevented with needle-exchange programs. We started keeping track of “Shalala Infections,” running a box in every issue tallying the climbing number of new infections that we calculated had resulted from her failure to lift the ban.

Shalala downplayed reports from the CDC that supported lifting the ban, misrepresented research findings, and questioned whether needle-exchange reduced transmission or increased drug use, contrary to the evidence. I called her out in harsh terms, labeling her failure to lift the ban an “act of genocidal neglect . . . pathetic, if not criminal,” and quoted Elizabeth Taylor, who said the U.S. government’s failure to fund needle-exchange programs amounted to “a measured act of premeditated murder.”

Our needle-exchange campaign benefited from Larry Kramer’s brash rhetoric. POZ’s first anniversary issue, in May 1995, featured Kramer on the cover, interviewed by Andrew Sullivan, then the editor of The New Republic and a prominent gay Catholic leader of the neoconservative movement.

I had a hunch that Andrew was HIV-positive—which was why I wanted him to interview Kramer—but he didn’t disclose his HIV-positive status to Larry, me, or our readers. In the interview, he and Kramer discussed the nature of evil. Larry said, “I think that because he [Anthony Fauci] has not done what he was capable of doing, [it] opens him up to very acceptable charges of evil. I certainly think Donna Shalala is evil. Evil, evil, evil.” Larry’s comment was as a perfect pull quote and we ran it on the center spread, in stark white type, against an ominous Albert Watson portrait of Kramer.

It got the attention of C-SPAN when they invited me to their studio to discuss the magazine’s first anniversary. At the time, KS lesions were starting to appear on my neck and face. When I was in the greenroom, the producer asked if I wanted makeup. “No, I’m fine,” I said. It was a small black-box studio, with the interviewer and me seated at a table surrounded by black curtains. I didn’t notice the cameras, nearly invisible in the folds of the curtains.

When the interviewer held up the page with Larry’s quote and asked about his comment, I explained Shalala’s various failures and argued that part of her reluctance was “because . . . as a closeted lesbian, she goes that extra mile to say ‘my personal life isn’t impacting these decisions.’” Then I caught myself and said, “You probably won’t air this.”

After the interview, I said to the producer, “You can edit that out,” explaining that I’d forgotten about the camera and hadn’t intended to out Shalala (who denied she was a lesbian). He replied, “This is C-SPAN. We run interviews as they are, we don’t edit them. This will air on Thursday.” My heart started pounding in anticipation of the broadcast. I was worried that Jean O’Leary, who told me Shalala was a lesbian, would be upset with me. Before I left the studio, they gave me a VCR tape of the interview. When I met Xavier in the greenroom, I said, “We’ve got to get out of here. You’ll never believe what I just said on camera.”

Later that day, I told Hattoy what had happened. He laughed and said, “I’m glad I don’t know you anymore.” That evening we spoke again, and he said, “I couldn’t wait to tell Victor [Zonana, Shalala’s openly gay press secretary], and boy, was he freaked out!”

The show didn’t run on Thursday. In fact it never aired, and later, Hattoy apologized for spilling the beans to Zonana, who, Hattoy said, stopped C-SPAN from running the interview. I shared the copy I had—complete with the network’s captioning chiron and logo—with friends, including a manager at Uncle Charlie’s gay bar. He ran the clip in a rotation on the video monitor for a few weeks. When it got to the point where I outed Shalala, the patrons of the bar sometimes would cheer. In retrospect, Shalala’s consideration of a 1998 gubernatorial run in Wisconsin, which was a secret at the time, may have contributed as much to her reluctance to lift the ban as anything else.

The disappointment with Clinton’s record on AIDS was widespread, even among campaign donors and supporters he appointed to his advisory commission on AIDS. Scott Hitt, a gay physician from Los Angeles with a big HIV practice, chaired the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) and had been an early supporter of and important fund-raiser for Clinton’s presidential campaign. He thanked me for POZ’s coverage: “You’re a great ‘bad cop’; keep up the pressure.”

The community anger was a concern for Clinton’s plan for reelection, prompting the White House to hold a conference on AIDS in December 1995. But it was so scripted toward a predetermined “isn’t it all wonderful” message that it became a farce. When Hattoy was told that he wouldn’t be allowed to attend the conference because “there aren’t enough chairs,” he went ballistic. A senior White House staffer, afraid of having to explain to the press why the president’s friend with AIDS—who’d spoken at the nominating convention—wasn’t at the conference, had the president call Hattoy to invite him. “Bob, my friend, I understand you’re frustrated,” Clinton said.

Hattoy responded, “Frustrated? I speak out about AIDS, and your staff blames me as the problem. I am not the problem. AIDS is the problem.” Hattoy said Clinton wasn’t aware that of the six people with AIDS whom he knew personally from his campaign team, five were dead; only Hattoy was still alive. This was during the fateful period when Monica Lewinsky was spending time in the Oval Office.

Criticism wasn’t tolerated at the White House conference, and Richard Socarides, an openly gay presidential appointee involved in organizing it, told me that I was “too controversial” to be invited. POZ was granted one pass with the caveat that we not ask the president any questions. White House staffer Marcia Scott told Mario Cooper, who chaired the board of the AIDS Action Council, that “political calculus” wouldn’t allow the Clinton administration to have a meaningful discussion of needle-exchange programs.

NAMES Project founder Cleve Jones was part of a prevention breakout group. He told me, “The group was great, and we agreed, using the strongest language possible, that needle-exchange programs were the prevention priority. But when the report came out, the language was watered down, to the point where needle exchange was just one on a long list of appropriate prevention measures.

A few months before Clinton’s reelection in 1996, PACHA, led by Scott Hitt, issued a progress report on the Clinton administration’s AIDS record. It was surprisingly frank. They called Clinton’s effort “insufficient,” said it “lacks focus and is overly timid,” and noted that “the time for increased commitment, along with moral and political courage, is now.”

I eventually endorsed Clinton’s reelection in 1996. As poor as he was on AIDS, there was no reason to think Bob Dole or Ross Perot would do any better and on many issues it was certain they would be worse. But I lamented the disappearance of the Clinton we had elected in 1992, the Clinton we’d believed cared and would make a difference. I hoped that after he was reelected he would show more leadership, since he didn’t have to worry about running again, but little changed. I had been proud of a photograph of Clinton and me taken during the 1992 campaign, and I had it on display in my office. But as his cowardice worsened the epidemic, and as he implemented the welfare “reform” that hurt so many, formulated “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and signed the Defense of Marriage Act, seeing that picture every day only made me angry. I took it down, ashamed that I had been conned again.

By March 1998, the PACHA appointees, including Hitt, had had enough. They issued an extraordinary statement announcing their vote of no confidence in the administration because of its failure to lift the ban on needle-exchange funding: “Tragically, we must conclude it is a lack of political will, not scientific evidence, that is creating this failure to act.” Hitt also sent a letter from PACHA directly to Shalala. “At best this is hypocrisy,” he wrote, “at worst it’s a lie. And no matter what, it’s immoral.”

At one point, after she had decided to forgo a run for Wisconsin governor, Shalala was apparently willing to lift the ban and may have even urged the president to do so. But Clinton’s top aides, Hattoy told POZ, were opposed. When the administration’s drug czar, General Barry McCaffrey, came out publicly in opposition and reportedly threatened to resign over the matter, it was a death knell. Clinton, who famously “did not inhale,” was loath to cross McCaffrey.

The Clinton administration sabotaged HIV prevention and treatment efforts in other ways. One concerned intellectual property rights controlling the use of generic medications around the world. Near the end of Clinton’s presidency, we learned from a leaked State Department memo that former vice president Al Gore had exerted pressure on South Africa to rescind legislation allowing use of generic anti-retrovirals at a vastly lower cost, rather than paying U.S. companies their huge markups. Gore’s senior campaign staff included several people who had been lobbyists for the pharmaceutical industry.

Gore’s role broke in The Washington Post, but the gay establishment, which by then had been coopted by the Clinton administration and the Democratic Party, quickly acquiesced, selling out people with HIV in Africa and elsewhere. The LGBT community was no longer the AIDS movement’s backbone of support, as it had incrementally moved away from AIDS issues since Clinton’s election. The administration had hired many openly LGBT community leaders and campaign volunteers. Many big LGBT donors to the Clinton campaign enjoyed access to the president, prestigious appointments, overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom, and other perquisites of access that earlier in my career I would have been delighted to enjoy. Hattoy was disgusted with how the gay community’s major donors and leadership had rolled over for the administration, “The religious right is organizing pew by pew by pew, and we’re going to cocktail parties in Washington trying to get a picture with Hillary.” Those same major LGBT donors to Clinton’s campaign also funded the community organizations that became so timid once Clinton was elected.

After ACT UP and others bird-dogged Gore on the generics issue, picketing or interrupting his presidential campaign appearances, spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign David Smith responded, “To single out the vice president is not fair.” Daniel Zingale, director of the AIDS Action Council, expressed similar go-along-to-get-along sentiments.

“This ‘feeling your pain’ business,” Hattoy said, referring to Clinton’s famous comment, “there’s something evil about it. It doesn’t sit well with me—it’s the banal evil. Until these people [Clinton and Shalala] change their behavior, words don’t count. It’s behavior that counts.”

Excerpted from "Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS and Survival" by Sean Strub. Published by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2014 by Sean Strub. Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher. All rights reserved.

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