Rep. Barbara Lee

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A Call for Hope

“Yes, We Can!” were the bold and hopeful words proclaimed this past summer by U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Lee during her Opening Session speech at AIDS 2012, responding to those who had believed that the discriminatory travel ban to the U.S. couldn’t be lifted. With the latest global win for people living with HIV/AIDS ushered across the finish line, the robust Representative, who reminds us of our own domestic urgency, must now work with her political peers to help secure the ultimate, targeted victory—the End of AIDS
by Sean Black, with Chael Needle

Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black

It’s a sunny, mid-September afternoon on Capitol Hill and the warmth inside of Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s bustling D.C. office is as pleasant as the fading summer heat outdoors. Having just arrived at her Congressional office on the second floor of the Rayburn House Office Building, I am welcomed by her staff, and then quickly briefed on a sudden change of plans. Once apprised of our new plan-of-action, alarms begin to echo through the historic halls in a Morse Code-like series of beeps and buzzes. The Congresswoman has just been called to vote.

The down-to-earth yet down-to-business Democratic lawmaker representing California’s 9th Congressional District (including Oakland, Berkeley, and parts of Alameda County) has been consistently re-elected to her two-year post in landslide victories since she was first elected back in 1998. She has a strong record for her independent and progressive stance on tougher issues such as war, marriage equality, and abortion, and is a staunch supporter of issues advocating for affordable housing, the homeless, safer neighborhoods, job training, affordable medical care, immigration, and initiatives driving legislation on the road toward international peace.

As a Senior Democratic Whip, the founding member and vice chair of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and the former co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, Congresswoman Lee has dedicated herself to safer communities and a more equitable world. Stepping up from her previous vocation as a social worker has broadened her effective reach to serve and fortify a much larger constituency in need: the underserved, discriminated-against, poor, sick and vulnerable. Her most recent organizing efforts helped launch the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus, which, in the 112th Congress, has been charged with exploring five thematic areas: implementation of the U.S. National HIV/AIDS Strategy; financing for bilateral and multilateral HIV/AIDS programs; the state of HIV/AIDS research; the role of faith-based organizations; and the recently convened International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C.

Is there any question that people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS here at home in the United States and abroad have a world-class ally in Representative Lee?

Returning to our interview and photo shoot, I have been escorted to the U.S. Capitol Building. Waiting for the closing session of votes to be announced I prepare for her descent. I take my position on a patch of granite at the base of an impressive flight of steps leading upwards toward the neoclassical entrance of the U.S. House of Representatives extension of the palatial structure representing hope and freedom for millions of individuals worldwide. Soaring high above me is the Capitol Rotunda and the American flag, which has been raised at half-mast, honoring those who lost their lives on 9/11, eleven years ago almost to the day.

A Call to Service
Another series of buzzers fills the soon-to-be-Autumn air and the House members begin to exit down the stairs. Recognizing many, my heightened state of awareness kicks in. I am witnessing a part of U.S. history, live and in person. What an honor! In a moment of sincere admiration, with a radiant light illuminating the fearless leader whom I greatly admire, I am caught off guard. I need to be nudged by Jirair Ratevosian, MPH, her office’s Legislative Director, to ask her my most important question—because quite frankly without her efforts I don’t know where we’d be—“What brought you into this fight against AIDS?”

Poised and drenched in fitting rays of sunshine, the Congresswoman replies, “In the late eighties when I was running for the California legislature, and a friend of mine, who now is 101 years old, an African-American woman named Maudelle Shirek called me up and said, ‘You have got to come down here to this rally. Do you know what is going on as it relates to HIV and AIDS? You’ve got to come.’”

She has always made sure the world has known about this guiding light. In her Congressional testimony, when introducing a bill in 2003 to rename a Federal Post Office in Berkeley in Maudelle Shirek’s honor, she explained: “A granddaughter of slaves, Maudelle left her rural Arkansas home and came to California in the middle of World War II. Before long she was campaigning for fair housing and other civil rights for African Americans. She helped found two Berkeley senior centers, and until her health started to slow her down, she helped deliver meals to shut-in seniors; or if it was a Tuesday, did all the shopping for lunches at the New Light Senior Center, which she founded nearly thirty years ago.”

Maudelle Shirek, the Congresswoman’s personal hero and kickstarter of her political career, was also an inspirational force for Lee’s predecessor, Congressman Ronald V. Dellums. A life rich in years, Shirek has spent the majority of it fighting for the same principles held dear by Lee and Dellums—social justice for all.

Reemphasizing the importance of this heroic woman, the Congresswoman concludes our meeting on a very touching note, “I love this woman dearly and there was no way that I would have said no. John Iversen from ACT UP was with her and I went down to the Berkeley Post Office [which in 2005 was named in her honor] where the rally was being held and the rest is history as you know.”

Lucky too for us, Congresswoman Barbara Lee heeded her political mentor’s call on that auspicious day and she commenced her dedicated journey to giving a powerful voice to those suffering from HIV/AIDS and to address the heartbreaking lack of efforts being made on their behalf.

A Call for Action
Committed to addressing injustice, Congresswoman Lee successfully authored a critical piece of legislation lifting the international ban allowing visitors with HIV to travel to the U.S. and helped the International AIDS Conference return to the United States. A little history: In 1987, the U.S. Public Health Service added HIV to its already established list of communicable diseases that prevented access into the country. If you had one of these diseases, you could not travel to the U.S. as easily as anyone else could. Though the Public Health Service tried to reverse what it had put in place, Congress went ahead and codified the HIV travel ban as law, and, later, with the Immigration Reform Act of 1990, it made HIV the only medical condition that prevented one from immigrating to the U.S. The organizers of the International AIDS Conference, and other conferences, protested this law by refusing to hold any meetings on our shores.

Congresswoman Lee introduced the first bill to repeal the ban in August 2007, recognizing the support of both political parties. In her opening speech at AIDS 2012, she reiterated this unity: “Thanks to bipartisan support, President Bush signed the repeal into law and President Obama lifted the ban.”

For twenty-two years, the International AIDS Conference stayed away for obvious reasons—many of its delegates, speakers, and organizers are people living with HIV/AIDS, and the law unfairly characterizes an HIV-positive status as a public health threat. This past year was different, however.

The steadfast Congresswoman resounds her claim to A&U: “I knew that we could not bring the conference back to the U.S. until the unjust and discriminatory HIV travel and immigration ban was lifted.” She has been a presence at every International AIDS Conference since she was first elected to Congress, from Durban in 2000 on.

As an honored guest at the XIX International AIDS Conference, Congresswoman Lee was able to share some of the fruits of her labor by welcoming thousands of guests to the United States. “I was thrilled to be at the XIX International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C.!”

The conference was a chance to welcome the global AIDS community back to the U.S., but also an opportunity to highlight how HIV/AIDS is still affecting our citizens. “Today, in America, nearly 1.2 million people are living with HIV/AIDS—the highest number ever of Americans living with the virus—with nearly 50,000 new infections every year,” she tells A&U. “While we’ve made progress in our battle against AIDS, too many Americans still die of this disease.”

Continuing, she admits, “Although, AIDS has made the transition from a death sentence to a chronic disease in the United States, over twenty percent of those living with HIV/AIDS don’t even know they are infected. So we need to dramatically expand HIV testing rates, especially among communities hardest hit by the epidemic.”

She explains the urgency: “In the host city of the conference, Washington, D.C., the epidemic (2.4 percent infection rate) is comparable to some African countries. African Americans—especially women of color and young gay/bisexual men—still face the most severe burden of HIV in the United States.”

Two years into this fight to reduce the numbers of new infections, increase access to care and to reduce health disparities on a disease mostly affecting gay men, women of color and the poor, “I’m pleased by the progress we are making under President Obama’s National AIDS Strategy.”

Asked what needs to be done, the Congresswoman provides the following details to A&U. “Our charge in Congress must now be to ensure that we provide the necessary resources to address these urgent needs and ensure that this new strategy gets implemented quickly and effectively. And we also need more funding for the Minority AIDS Initiative—and double the CDC’s HIV prevention budget.

“At the Conference, I was focused on raising the spotlight on our own domestic HIV/AIDS epidemic. As I have always said, as we go out to fulfill our commitment to fighting AIDS around the world, we must include our domestic agenda as part of a global effort for an AIDS-free generation.”

A Call to End AIDS
Congresswoman Barbara Lee feels that, although we have accomplished a lot over the last decade and made significant progress in terms of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and Ryan White, “we are just getting started.”

At the Conference, she called for a Global AIDS-Free Generation Strategy—for the U.S. and abroad—citing that AIDS remains an urgent health crisis, but reminding us “the end of AIDS is within our reach.”

“If we don’t provide additional funding for both our bilateral programs, and multilateral efforts like the Global Fund,” reminds the Congresswoman, “our hard won successes are in jeopardy.”

As an advocate for PLWAs her accomplishments are vast, including authoring or co-authoring every major piece of legislation dealing with the HIV/AIDS pandemic since her election to her seat in Congress, including PEPFAR and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria.
Her new bill, Ending the HIV/AIDS Epidemic Act, which lays forth a policy and financing framework of how we can navigate a course in order to realize an AIDS-free generation, is supported by four key pillars:

1. Increasing and targeting resources to maximize impact and drive greater efficiency for improved results
2. Ending stigma and discrimination that inhibit access to health services
3. Repealing and reforming laws and politically motivated policies that violate human rights and limit the positive impact of resources
4. Engaging meaningfully with key affected populations in the HIV response—specifically men who have sex with men, transgendered people, sex workers and people who inject drugs.

Congresswoman Lee believes that the U.S. can be a global leader and calls to us to fight for justice and end discrimination in order to grant healthcare access. “Legislators must support laws that call for meaningful inclusion of key affected populations in the HIV response—specifically men who have sex with men (MSM), transgendered people, sex workers and people who inject drugs.

“As a member of the United States on the United Nations Global Commission on HIV and the Law, I am concerned that progress in the global response is being undermined by harmful and discriminatory laws that reduce the positive impact of these invested resources.”

The thorough report emphasizes areas in peril, particularly those that “dehumanize many of those at highest risk for HIV: sex workers, transgendered people, men who have sex with men (MSM), people who use drugs, prisoners and migrants. Rather than providing protection, the law renders these ‘key populations’ all the more vulnerable to HIV. Contradictory to international human rights standards, 78 countries—particularly governments influenced by conservative interpretations of religion—making same-sex activity a criminal offense with penalties ranging from whipping to execution.”

Congresswoman Barbara Lee helps launch the XIX International AIDS Conference. Photo © IAS/Steve Shapiro–Commercialimage.net

The Congresswoman understands the global impact but also encourages us to reflect upon our own domestic criticality. In order to be a global leader, we must be on point here in our own homeland. “In the U.S, thirty-four states and two U.S. territories have criminal statutes based on perceived exposure—let me repeat: perceived. Not actual! Some of the laws that have been passed are so broad that even when someone living with HIV with an undetectable viral load engages in sexual activity while using a condom, they may still have committed a crime,” she states. “I call on Congress to pass my legislation, H.R. 3053—which directs the Department of Justice to conduct a review of state laws and make best-practice recommendations.”

Furthermore in the Congresswoman’s call for necessary and urgent attention, “Implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and maintaining Medicaid, Medicare and the Ryan White Program, which provide healthcare to low income people with HIV, are all critical to ensuring people with HIV receive treatment. Unfortunately, all of these programs are under attack by Congress and some states have already signaled they will not participate in the Medicaid expansion or set up insurance exchanges. It is time to stop the political fighting and move to full implementation of the ACA—not only in Washington, but in each of the states.”

Having proven herself time and time again as a stalwart and tenacious ally, Congresswoman Lee safeguards the laws that pertain to equality, freedom and the constant betterment of human rights. We, along with her Congressional peers who wish to see an AIDS-free world, must climb up from the back seat and join her at the wheel.

In her Congressional testimony nearly a decade ago to memorialize and to pay tribute to her heroic mentor at the site to where she was called to action so many years ago, Congresswoman Barbara Lee concluded her plea with poignancy and truth, “The world would be a better place if we had more Maudelles,” and A&U concurs with an amendment of our own. The world would be an even better place if we had more Barbaras, too.


Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.


Editor at Large Sean Black is a writer and photographer based in Florida. He may be contacted by e-mail via his Web site: www.seangblack.com.

October 2012