Julian Bond: HIV/AIDS Is “A Civil Rights Issue”

Julian Bond served as chairman of the NAACP from 1998 to 2009. In 2006, Bond became one of the first prominent black leaders to get tested for HIV. He tells FRONTLINE that for too long, too many members of the African American community ignored the threat of HIV/AIDS and acknowledges that he too could have done more: “I didn’t do what I could have done and should have done.” Ultimately, he says, the effort to stop the spread of the disease is “a civil rights issue because it afflicts anyone.” This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 5, 2011.

When did AIDS first come into your world?

I’m not really sure. I think I was still living in Atlanta, instead of D.C. where I live now, and a friend of mine had AIDS. He is the first person I knew who had AIDS, and he eventually died, but at the time he was just ill all the time and wasting away.

And I think that I had heard about this disease. This person had it, these people had it and so on, but this is the first time it was personal to me. …

How did it strike you, knowing there was a mysterious illness? What was your first impression of it?

My first impression was like the impression I think other people had: This is a gay disease. This is a disease gay people had. And for most people, I think gay people meant white people, even though my friend who had AIDS was gay and black. But you sort of compartmentalized this. This is white gay people and therefore not anybody I know.

But of course I did know white gay people, and I knew black gay people. And I began to know black and white gay people who had AIDS and at least two people who died from it, and people today who have it who are both black and gay and therefore went against my stereotypical notion of who the people were who had this disease.

As you say, though, people construed it as a white gay disease. Can you tell me about that?

I think for black Americans, who I’m sorry to say are among the most homophobic among all Americans — partly because we are religious and our religion teaches us that homosexuality is an abomination, and that it is also something that you can get rid of if you want to; you can decide not to be gay, and therefore why don’t you? — I think in our universe, gay people were white people. And even though we surely knew black gay people — every church has gay people in it, and these are people who are known and well liked and even loved: maybe the choir master, maybe the choir director — but somehow or another we compartmentalize who these people are and put them aside and don’t think of them as part of the population we’re talking about.

So I think we thought about AIDS as afflicting only white people, and then only white gay people, and there were no black gay people.

What was the effect of that in the early years?

It meant that as the disease grew and grew and grew, we tended to ignore it and pay no attention to it, or to think it was something that didn’t affect anybody that we knew and therefore [was] not a matter of concern for us, which is foolish and criminal even. But I think nonetheless, this was pretty much the attitude.

… What is the urgency now around HIV in black America?

The urgency is to make sure that the information about how to avoid AIDS, how to seek treatment if you think you have AIDS, how to find out whether or not you have AIDS, how to be tested, … to make sure that information penetrates black America deeper I think than it has to date.

The situation is much better now than it used to be, but it’s not as good as it could be. So that’s I think the crisis point now, to make sure everybody who needs to know knows that this disease is out there, that you can get it, that there are treatments for it and they are available. But you need to know things in order to access this.

Can you describe how HIV/AIDS is a civil rights issue?

It’s a civil rights issue because it afflicts anyone. Anyone can have AIDS. And it’s a civil rights issue because people who have AIDS, more so in the past than now, used to be stigmatized and pushed aside. “This person is diseased. I’ll catch the disease; I’ll die from the disease; I don’t want to have anything to do with this person. This person had the disease because he did something wrong; he engaged in risky behavior, risky sexual behavior or sexual behavior I don’t approve of, and so therefore I should shun this person, put this person aside.”

And that’s a civil rights issue, the marginalization of somebody because of who they are or a condition they have that they didn’t wish upon themselves. That’s wrong, and that’s a civil rights issue.

… Is it about discrimination?

It’s surely about discrimination, and discrimination is wrong. It doesn’t matter if you’re discriminated against because you’re tall or short or white or black or whatever. Whatever your discriminatory aspect, the fact that you’re discriminated against is wrong, and all of us should rise up against that. All of us should protest against that.

What about poverty?

Poverty is associated with all kinds of diseases, because people who are poor generally don’t have the resources to seek treatment or to avoid conditions that lead to a disease. And so poverty and disease are connected … to the extent that you diminish poverty, you diminish disease, and AIDS is one of the diseases that you can diminish. …

There’s so many parts of the civil rights battle we haven’t finished, but the war against poverty is certainly one of them. Even more so today than say, five years ago, the gap between the very rich and the very poor is getting wider rather than getting closer and closer together. And this is a frightening behavior for our country.

It’s bad for all of us. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you live, what you do; this is a bad omen for our country, and I’m afraid that very few people are concerned about it, and very few people do anything at all about it.

Why is that?

I think because we think it’s not us. And even if we aren’t rich, even if we find ourselves at the lower end of the economic spectrum, we think to ourselves, well, things are going to get better. I’m going to get a good job; I’m going to go up the ladder; I’m going to be rescued from this condition I’m in now, and things are going to get better for me.

We’re an optimistic people. We think good things are going to happen to us, even against all evidence. Therefore we don’t tend to associate with people down at the lower end of the spectrum, even if they are we.

Robert Fullilove, an academic at Columbia, said that in neighborhoods where there’s extreme poverty, the employer of last resort is the drug dealer. How do we make the connection between poverty and things that leave us at risk for HIV? …

You make the line between things that put you at risk for disease and poverty I think just by opening your eyes and looking around you. You can see that people who don’t have access to a good education, don’t have access to neighborhood health care, don’t have access to all of the things that human beings can use to guard against exposure to a variety of things that hurt them, to the degree that your access to these hurtful conditions grows, your risk goes up. And to the degree that you’re able to reduce the access to these hurtful conditions, then the risk goes down. And as a country, we can do a great deal to reduce these risks, but I’m afraid we don’t do what we ought to do.

We don’t do what we should. We don’t have jobs programs for people. We don’t have training programs for people who need training from some industry that’s collapsing and disappearing to a new industry. We make a lot of noise about green jobs, but I don’t think we spend money on green jobs. We talk a good game, but we don’t do much about it, as much as we should.

So in that way, AIDS is a symptom of a larger societal problem.
… If you think of poverty as a subproblem, or AIDS as a subproblem of poverty, the degree that we don’t address one of them means that the other is going to flourish and grow.

“If you think of … AIDS as a subproblem of poverty, the degree that we don’t address one of them means that the other is going to flourish and grow.”

One thing we uncovered — maybe you’ve heard this exact thing — is that there were five cases that were reported in June of 1981, five cases of HIV among five white gay males. The next three people that the same doctor diagnosed were black. We never heard that. What’s your reaction to that?

I never heard that before, and had I heard it, or had we heard that, I think the anxiety about AIDS and the impetus to do something about AIDS would have been quicker, grown faster. The concern would have been greater, because if this was not just something that white gay males got, if this was something that black people, gay or not, could get, if this was something that addressed a larger segment of the population, then I think the whole attitude toward AIDS would have been different at the beginning and therefore as the disease grew and progressed. …

The doctor told us on camera that not reporting the race of the first few cases was no big deal.

It’s a big, big deal. It’s a tremendous big deal. We need to know this, and in treating any kind of epidemic, you need to know who the people are who have it, I would think. … I think that was a tragic, tragic mistake. …

… So in the first few years, people have told us that although there were some cases diagnosed and some friends dying who were black, that in the community, in the leadership there was trauma fatigue. There were all kinds of things going on in the ’80s.

Think of black Americans as a people under siege, at least having a siege mentality: The world is against us; discrimination is still with us. Despite passing laws and heroic efforts, despite great movements, wonderful people leading them, we’re still under siege.

And so here’s this new thing. Don’t bring that along here. We don’t want to deal with this new thing. We have enough trouble here with these things. So I think it’s understandable, if regretful, how the phenomenon of this new thing could be easily pushed aside. …

… Some people have said that the main driver of the epidemic is this attitude of the church toward gays. Tell us about that.

I wouldn’t say that it was the main driver, but it certainly is a major driver. If an institution that so many people in a community believe in and attend weekly and listen to and believe in strongly says that the people who are likely to pass this disease along are engaging in abominable behavior, and they themselves are an abominable people, and they are people who ought to be scorned and cast off, if they’re despised people, then it’s easy to say: “Well, it’s just something they’re doing [to] themselves. It’s not anything I can do anything about or I should do anything about. It’s them. They’re the awful people, and I need to put them to the side and forget about them, not pay any attention to them.”

And that attitude, it’s hard to say it’s the major attitude, but it is a strong attitude. And that can be blamed for much of the spread of AIDS and the marginalization of AIDS in black America. It was these despised people. They do it; they have it, not us.

There was a billboard — I interviewed the pastor who put it up in front of his church in Birmingham, [Ala.] — said, “AIDS is God’s revenge against homosexuals.”

My lord. Well, if you believe that, then are you going to do anything to stop the spread of AIDS? Are you going to do anything to seek treatment? Are you going to do anything to importune officials to spend more money on this? Of course not. If this is God’s will, what can we do about it? Of course we know, or we should know, this is not God’s will. I’m not a big religious person, but I can’t believe that God willed this on anyone.

“I’m not a big religious person, but I can’t believe that God willed this on anyone.”

… You’ve got these people in leadership positions in the church. What does that do to a gay man sitting in the pew?

I can only imagine that if you’re gay and sitting in the pew and the pastor is roaring about things that you do and your lifestyle and the way you are, about who you are, and raging and saying how despicable you are, not calling your name, not singling you out, but you have to feel singled out. I can understand how you feel like getting up and running out of the building. …

… If you are in the pew and you hear all this about who you are, and you want to run out the door as you just said, but you don’t run out the door; you just run into the closet.

… Think of the self-denial this builds in you, the argument this sets up within yourself about who you are and how truthful you are about who you are. This must be an awful burden to carry. …

And then what happens? [There is the phenomenon of] being on the down-low, spreading HIV.

I would imagine that what happens here is, as you are denigrated in this place where you’ve come for comfort and for ease, … it makes you more likely to hide yourself and to engage in what we call risky behaviors, to tell the world, “I’m straight,” while in your private life you’re gay and you’re engaging in unprotected sex or sex with others of the same sex and heightening the opportunity that you’re going to catch or spread a disease. It just seems like compounding a problem that’s already bad and making it even worse.

… You got tested. … You were the first black leader to do that publicly. I really want to hear your version of the story.

I can’t remember who approached the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People]. It may have been our health director who had this idea [that] a public AIDS testing by the leadership of the NAACP would do a great deal to say: “This is OK. This is something you should do.”

If these people whom you know and hopefully you respect are doing this, and you see not only is it painless but it’s quick, it’s easy, anybody can do it, why not? We thought it would increase the numbers of people who were tested, and I hope it did. And so it was an easy thing to do.

It wasn’t all that easy to be in front of this crowd of people and swab the inside of your mouth. It was a little … nerve-creating. But it was easy to do. It didn’t hurt; it was painless. And we knew the answers in a short while, and we were all fine. … I hope many other people said, “Hey, I can do that.” …

Do you remember feedback? Did it encourage [testing]?

I don’t remember any feedback. … We did this at the NAACP’s convention. It could have been 5,000 people there. … We had a setup at the convention in the exhibit hall where anybody could walk in and say, “I want to get an AIDS test,” and bam, they’d get it right away, and they’d get the response in half an hour.

So I know a number of people did it. Be interesting to find out how many, but I really don’t know. …

Why would you write a piece in The Washington Post? So you got tested, you know.

I was prompted to write the op-ed piece by someone else who assisted in the writing and asked me to do it, and I was happy to do it, because I had been engaged in this struggle for a little while. I knew that an op-ed in the Post would get a big audience and that more and more people would see it and we’d push the cause forward a bit, so I was happy to do that.

I was engaged in it really as a part of what I’ve taken on as a fight against discrimination against gay people, because that’s something very important to me, and I’ve spent a lot of energy and time on it. It’s tied up with this fight to eliminate AIDS because AIDS spreads because of prejudice against gay people, and to the degree that we reduce that prejudice, we reduce the spread of AIDS and we eliminate death, and that’s just common sense.

What’s personal about it? Why have you taken it on?

I know many gay people. I work with gay people, and I’ve often said, am I supposed to tell them, “Listen, you helped me to get my freedom, but not you. I’m not helping you to get yours. I’m not helping you to eliminate discrimination against you, even though you helped me to eliminate discrimination against me”?

No, of course. How could you say that to anybody who had helped you? How could you say that to any human being you know, whether they helped you or not? But I couldn’t say it, and I wanted to do something about it.

Where do you think the leadership was during the ’80s?

I think it was a combination of people saying, “I have so many other things on my menu, I can’t take this on,” or, “If I take this on, the stigma attached to it will attach to me, and I don’t want that.” Either one of those was not a legitimate excuse, but it was the excuse that people used. … Was wrongheaded in both ways.

Did people say, “Where was Julian Bond in the ’80s?”

I’m sure people did say that. I don’t think anybody said it to me, and if they had said it to me, perhaps I would have said: “You’re right. I should be there.” But no one did.

And so it just wasn’t on the radar.

No. Was it on my radar? I don’t really know if it was something that I felt I didn’t want to get engaged in, or what the reason was. But anyway, I didn’t do what I could have done and should have done.

What do you think about that?

Well, I feel badly about myself. It’s a bad reflection on me that I didn’t take a more leading role than I did. I could have; I should have. I was in a position of responsibility. I could have done it, and I didn’t. …

But to those who say, “Where was the NAACP during the ’80s and ’90s?” …

It’s hard to explain. We were pushed to do something by people outside the organization. We were pushed by a succession of health directors who said: “Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you take this on? Why don’t you do that?” For various reasons we don’t do it, and what those reasons are I really don’t know.

Was it fear of being associated with the stigma that was associated with AIDS? Was it that this was a gay disease and we didn’t want to be involved with gay people? Was it some silly prejudice or bigotry of that sort? I don’t know. But for whatever reason, we didn’t do what we could have done or what we should have done. …

… It sounded like you regret not being awakened to things in the ’80s. … What would you say to people about you’re doing something now? Many people, many leaders aren’t doing something.

Well, I’d urge them if they’re doing nothing to do something. And it’s so easy to do something. You don’t have to become the crusader to end all crusaders, but this is a serious problem. It afflicts people all over the world, in our own country and in our own community, and you can do something about it.

It was pleasing to me to visit Martin Luther King’s church and see the new pastor on World AIDS Day preaching a sermon about AIDS. I was so surprised that a black church was doing that, but I should have realized that this church would do it, because this was a fighting church; this was Dr. King’s church, and you know Dr. King’s church would do that.

But I thought also about the hundreds of thousands of churches that don’t do it, that don’t do anything — don’t lift their voices, don’t say a word, and let this scourge continue on without any interference by them. Just seems so wrongheaded to do that.

I’ve never been the kind of person who chastises people to do this: “You need to do this.” But they need to do this. They need to do it badly. …

When you think of the civil rights battle, AIDS as a civil rights battle, the quote that strikes me — I don’t know if it strikes you — as most pertinent is, “We’ll remember not the words of our enemies, but the –”

“Silence of our friends,” yes. Well, you know, that’s so strong — “We’ll remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends” — because it’s our friends we depended on, friends [who] said, “You’ll help us; I know you’ll help us; I know you’re with me in this fight.”

I’ve always said that to my friends and expected a good response, and from my real friends I got a good response. But now I realize that the people who didn’t give me a response probably weren’t my friends, were pretending to be my friends and were pretending to be the friends of this larger struggle that all of us should be in. And if you’re only pretending to be a friend, you’re not a friend.

… When George Bush gave $15 billion overseas to 17 countries, if black America was a country, it would be number 16. Black America would be eligible for PEPFAR [President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief]. You know, [Rep.] Maxine Waters [D-Calif.] and [Sen.] Barbara Boxer [D-Calif.] [were] saying, “Where’s our PEPFAR?” What do you think about the federal response to HIV in black America?

It can never be thought of as equal to the demand because it’s not. There’s no sense that the federal government is doing what it could do or what it should do, and the amounts of monies it’s given aren’t sufficient to the problem.

So that’s just taken for granted that they’re not greater; we’re not really sure why. Is it because this community hasn’t been vocal enough or loud enough or demanding enough? Is it because it hasn’t been able to pull the levers of power sufficiently to make the money come? I’m not sure what it is. I think it’s probably a combination of all those things, but it hasn’t been enough.

The church has been one of the drivers of abstinence-only education. I wonder what you think about that, young people being at risk and being taught basically, “Just say no.”

Just saying no is not good enough. You have to say yes to something, and that yes is yes to treatment, yes to funds, yes to consciousness, yes to knowledge. All those things, you can’t just say no. And “Just say no” is so wrong, is so shortsighted, is so limiting, it just is hard to think that you would think it was enough.

President Obama. You got tested; he got tested, but he got tested in Kenya. … What would you say to him?

I’d say that he needs to evolve a little more. You know, he says he’s evolving on the question of same-sex marriage, and I think he is evolving on it, but he needs to evolve quicker, faster, and come to some conclusion relatively quickly.

I think he’s in a difficult position on many, many issues, not wanting to go too far on this, thinking he’s gone as far as he can go, and I think, generally speaking, he’s right. But I wish he’d be a little more forthcoming on this and talk a little bit more about it and do a little bit more about it. It’s important, and he’s important in the fight. …

… People have said that after 30 years of HIV, we know how to prevent it, we know how to treat it, we know how to deal with it, and that we’re in the endgame. Maybe that’s right. What’s the endgame?

The endgame is a cure, and how close we are to that I don’t know. I think we’re closer than we used to be, but how close that is I do not know. The endgame is where someone says, “Gee, I have AIDS,” and the doctor will say, “Well, listen, you need to take this pill and do this thing, and in six months or a year, it will be all over.” That’s the endgame.

“The endgame is a cure.”

… When people look at the whole landscape of HIV and AIDS, when you say “black AIDS,” they say, “Magic Johnson.” So I interviewed him about two weeks ago, and he is magnificent, but he’s [one of the only leaders on this]. What do you say to other potential leaders out there?

That you need to get in this fight. That you need to have your voice heard. You need to be seen. You need to do something about this. If you look at the Congressional Black Caucus, there are people there who are doing wonderful things in this fight. If you look at the general range of civil rights leadership, there are people who from time to time do things. So it’s not like nobody’s doing anything. There are people who are doing things.

But nobody seems to be doing enough, and there are some people who are doing nothing. And the ones who are doing nothing need to do something, and the ones who are doing something need to do more.

What’s going to incentivize them? Why should they?

I think it’s a matter of personal conviction. You have to come to some consciousness that this is something I need to do. And if you can’t, your consciousness can’t develop to that point, then you’re not going to do it.

When we look back on this period and we see the continuum — Brown v. Board of Education, activities of the ’60s, the whole thing — and we see this tremendous tsunami that hit the black community in the age of AIDS, what are we going to see?

I don’t know, and the answer to why we’ve not seen more then and don’t see more now, these are questions I can’t answer. But I think there again, it’s a matter of conviction and consciousness. When enough people come to the conviction “I need to do something” and the consciousness “I can do this thing or that thing,” then it will happen. But until then, you have to wait for them to act, and you may have to wait a long, long time for some people.

Or they have to get to know someone the way you did at the very beginning.

Yes, that may be it. That’s true for me and gay rights. If I had not known gay people, I’m not sure I would be engaged in this the way I am now. But because I did know gay people, and I work with gay people, and gay people were my friends and they helped me, and now I must help them.

Isn’t it the same with HIV but you can’t tell by looking? Most people actually do know someone with –

Oh, yes, most people do know somebody with AIDS, but they don’t know they know them. That is, most people know people who are gay, but they don’t always know that they do. …

I’ve always thought that if more gay people would say, “I’m gay; you’ve known me for 20 years, and now I want you to know I’m gay; you probably thought I was gay, but now I’m telling you I’m gay,” I think that would raise the level of acceptability tremendously.

But it’s hard for somebody who’s straight to say to gay people: “Come on out. Come on out of the closet; come on out here. Face the abuse and bigotry that you’ve been hiding from all these years.” But I think it would be a great step forward.

And is it the same for people with AIDS?

Absolutely the same for people with AIDS: “I want you to know I have AIDS; I’m taking medicine; I’m OK. I have bad days and good days, but this is a good day. You’re my friend. I wanted you to know.” I think it would do a great deal. But again, it’s easy for me to say.

But the stakes are high.

Yes, the stakes are terribly high, and to the degree that we all engage in this, the level of the stakes go down and go down and go down, the situation gets better. You know, it’s like this message about bullying for kids: It does get better. It will get better.

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