03/05/2012 05:38 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Pop the Bubbly: Here's Hoping HRC Rediscovers HIV in Gay America!

It only makes sense that the Human Rights Campaign's new president, Chad Griffin, played a leading role in trying to overturn California's Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage.

HRC has had its sights set on same-sex marriage for some time. In fact, even longtime activists say HRC has a case of tunnel vision in its focus on an issue that doesn't rank high on the priority list for a great many LGBT people in this country.

"The lack of access to marriage is not exactly a crisis," said noted historian John D'Emilio in an interview. "But think of the mobilization and energy that has gone into that in the last five to 10 years, as opposed to an issue in which thousands of people are dying each year. AIDS is much more of a crisis than marriage."

D'Emilio continued, "Marriage appeals to people who have social and economic status. AIDS hits more strongly people who don't have economic status."

Personally, I can't look at HRC -- or the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) -- without recalling the fact that the two largest national LGBT political organizations were able to rise to national prominence only because the AIDS epidemic brought so many people out of their closets and into the "movement" for equality.

As well-insured, middle-class gay men -- with enough disposable income to attend pricy black-tie dinners and write biggish checks -- have checked HIV/AIDS off their list of personal worries, it's perhaps not surprising that the national organizations they support likewise have moved HIV/AIDS far down their list of priorities.

On the other hand, I can't think of anything more shocking than the degree to which gay America's two leading "voices" in Washington have muzzled themselves where it comes to the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic in gay America.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that:

  • In 2008 one in five (19 percent) of gay and bisexual men in 21 major U.S. cities were infected with HIV; nearly half (44 percent) didn't know they were infected.

  • In 2007 "men who have sex with men" were 44 to 86 times as likely to be diagnosed with HIV as other men, and 40 to 77 times as likely as women.

  • From 2005 to 2008 the estimated number of new HIV infections among gay/bi men increased about 17 percent.

  • White gay/bi men are still getting infected with HIV at extraordinary levels, accounting for nearly half (46 percent) of new infections in 2006.

  • Among black gay/bi men, there were more new HIV infections (52 percent) among young black men between 13 and 29 years old.

Some may find it acceptable, even "normal," that gay/bi men in America have far higher rates of a deadly virus -- which still does great harm even with treatment -- than the hardest-hit, most impoverished areas of the developing world.

I do not.

The CDC says that unprotected sexual risk accounts for most of these HIV infections. No surprise there. The CDC further notes that alcohol and illicit drug use contributes to the increased risk for HIV infection and other sexually transmitted infections among gay/bi men. Again, no surprise.

But what jumps off the page is where CDC says "stigma and homophobia may have a profound impact on the lives of MSM [men who have sex with men], especially their mental and sexual health."

University of Pittsburgh medical anthropologist (and gay man) Ron Stall describes the "syndemics" -- the convergence of "epidemics" of psychosocial health conditions, such as childhood sexual abuse, partner violence, depression, and drug use -- that reinforce and make each other worse. Men who are most strongly affected by one of these also tend to be at high risk for HIV transmission or infection. Gay and bisexual men from lower income or culturally marginalized ethnic groups are especially vulnerable to syndemic effects.

These men, of course, don't tend to be supporters of HRC or NGLTF -- even though they are as much a part of gay America as the groups' educated, white, middle-class donors.

Why hasn't HRC or NGLTF called for a major national campaign, funded from the the CDC's nearly $1 billion HIV prevention budget, aimed at supporting programs that help gay men of all colors and income levels to be healthy and well? HIV prevention researchers and educators tell me in interviews this is what's needed to finally control HIV in gay America. Shouldn't it be a top priority for HRC and NGLTF?

HIV/AIDS in gay America stopped being a priority around the time white, middle-class gay men stopped dying in large numbers from AIDS thanks to effective treatment. This is why a March 5 search of HRC's website found this nugget buried in the "health" sub-page: "HIV/AIDS continues to be a critical issue for the LGBT community and for the Human Rights Campaign." It then reaches back to President Obama's 2009 lifting of the 22-year-old ban on HIV-positive visitors and immigrants coming to the United States as an example of a "major victory" -- even though the lifted ban didn't benefit gay Americans.

For its part, NGLTF's website is still quoting from its 2009 World AIDS Day statement. The group issues a "statement" every World AIDS Day. I had to look back 11 years in the list of policy reports it has produced to find a 2001 report on HIV/AIDS among American (Latino) gay/bisexual men.

While the bubbly flows at HRC headquarters in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the new leader of the group that used to be nicknamed the "Human Rights 'Champagne' Fund" because of the homogeneity of its particular homosexual constituency, perhaps the group will consider broadening its priorities beyond the narrow interests of a narrow segment of the LGBT population.

It's fine to fight for the equal right to marriage. Those who choose to marry a same-sex partner will be able to thank HRC and NGLTF for helping to make it possible.

But the organizations dishonor their own history by not advocating more forcefully and directly on behalf of the far larger number of American gay and bisexual men at risk for and living with HIV, who don't have the luxury of moving HIV/AIDS down our list of priorities.