If this year has seen a unifying story about homophobia, heterosexism, however we want to label that, then it’s been this: a desperate plea from many corners of the LGBT community to both fellow members and outsiders to not discount it as “over”. Within the US, marriage equality has not only become national policy but withstood most challenges so far, and increased rights for many students have gelled in particular. The only sometimes spoken fear is that this recent history of modest victories will lull people into a false sense of security. Maybe the only good thing about the National Religious Liberties Conference, to be held in Iowa this coming Friday and Saturday, is that if properly covered it might deflate those illusions about what progress has been made.
A shocking number of people to this day shrug off the statements from the conference’s head organizer on HIV/AIDS. Saying that the debilitating disease that disproportionately affects non-straight men and transgender women is essentially a divine retribution has become almost a cliché, sarcastic device. Well, Kevin Swanson, the organizer in question, brought it out seriously in a recent radio broadcast, in which he called HIV/AIDS “God’s retribution to their [LGBT people’s] sexual habit”. What’s more, he characterized any sort of government financing of research to treat, prevent, or cure HIV/AIDS “support for their homosexual activity” and “accommodate their activity”.
A woman wearing a shirt reading “Thank God for AIDS,” from here.
He and his guest commentator agreed, “This is a politically protected disease” – and they didn’t mean that its spread and effects have been encouraged through and framed as just desserts for LGBT people. They meant that the status as someone slowly dying from a treatable infection that was historically underfunded and underexamined in part because of the marginalized classes it affected is privileged over them. This is fueled by and fuel for almost every modern heterosexist fire in America – that true persecution is a purely straight experience, that HIV/AIDS is comically over-addressed, that LGBT people in general are a shadowy conspiratorial class, and so on.
This might originate as a theological argument about sin, sexuality, and disease, but it has become a political argument in favor of societal resources not being structured in a way that accounts of the unique needs of LGBT people. Quite the opposite of changing society to make it more livable for LGBT people, this argument can only tolerate one form of organized collective social action towards LGBT people other than direct, unambiguous violence – neglect. For anything active and positive, Swanson is very clear on his perspective: “The solution is private charity”. The emphasis on private cannot be ignored, as he stresses it. In spite of that, he can’t even imagine private liberal churches or other organizations being able to stomach supporting people with HIV/AIDS. The argument against it being publicly addressed is both a way of denying HIV/AIDS research some of the most extensive resource pools and, it’s imagined, a way of ultimately making the problem one that society as a whole neglects.
The political dimensions of this aren’t something to be laughed away. The conference will only draw a small number of devoted attendees – by most estimates around 1,600 – but has confirmed three Republican Presidential candidates (Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, and Ted Cruz) will be among them, and Ben Carson might make an appearance as well. The conference is quite blatant about the point of the presidential involvement. Their website notes that in the Iowan caucuses “the Christian conservative element will have its largest impact at the outset of the race” and that “presidential candidates need to hear from us”. The Republican Party, for all of the 2012 promises to rise from their electoral ashes like a more tolerant phoenix has at least four presidential contenders with some involvement in this conference, predicated on spreading a virulently anti-LGBT agenda.
That is one of the major parties in the country, and this is the continuing political reality. One in which LGBT lives are uniquely disposable.