Tale of Two Elizabeths: Bringing Hope to New Hope

By Tamara Fagin, Guest Blogger

I did not grow up watching Elizabeth Taylor on the silver screen. If I did, I’m sure that like many young people who did come of age with her (like my parents), I would have been utterly distracted by her dark-haired beauty, her striking violet blue eyes and all of those marriages. She was a superstar.

I, on the other hand, came of age during the 1980’s. During a period of tumultuous change – somewhat like now come to think of it. I witnessed (on television) the fall of the Berlin Wall, the fallout of Chernobyl and individuals, families and institutions grappling with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The Elizabeth Taylor that I grew up with was the most famous AIDS activist in the world.

Sex, AIDS and No Hope. I remember my oldest uncle telling me, as I prepared to go to college, how young people now didn’t have to wait to get married to have sex like his generation did, but that having sex might kill them. HIV/AIDS put an end to the care-free sexual revolution.

I never imagined that less than 2 years later my youngest (and favorite) uncle, Uncle Bernard, would tell me that he and his boyfriend, Harold, were both HIV- positive.

Uncle Bernard and Harold lived in the quaint artist colony of New Hope, Pennsylvania, a popular weekend getaway for many in New York and Philadelphia. I spent many happy weekends and a summer living and working with them – dancing to Madonna’s Vogue and other 80’s hits with Harold at the Cartwheel, dining at Chez Odette’s and sipping wine like a bona-fide grown up at art gallery openings.

But, AIDS changed all of that. By the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, New Hope’s gay population was devastated by the AIDS epidemic. There was essentially NO HOPE in New Hope. Every week seemed to bring more bad news: someone else was in the hospital with Kaposi Sarcoma or Pneumocystis pneumonia; another friend was no longer able to work and was being evicted from his home; a neighbor had a T-cell count of 4 and had jokingly given each a name (the average count for these infection fighting cells is 500 to 1,500). Dark humor for dark days.

Those of us who lived through this era will recall the hysteria that spread through America regarding how this disease might be transmitted. It was like the dark ages – HIV-positive children, such as Ryan White and Ricky Ray, were shunned and not allowed to go to school or their homes were torched by mobs who feared the spread of AIDS. And, to make matters worse, some praised God for killing the homosexuals and drug addicts with AIDS. It was a lonely time for people living with HIV/AIDS; and my grandmother, a devout Catholic, left the church and prayed at home for her youngest son.

Acting; New Hope. Many stayed at home, afraid. But, thankfully, others, such as Elizabeth Taylor, got angry and courageously took a stand. By her very public actions, she provided new hope for a cure, a vaccine and a better life for those living with HIV/AIDS.

Elizabeth Taylor lost 2 close friends to AIDS. She took the pain of her loss and turned it into something positive – a global movement that changed the way many people viewed AIDS and its victims. She was quoted on CNN.com as follows: “Everyone was talking about AIDS, but talking behind their hands[.]” … “But nobody was doing anything about it, including myself. And then I got really angry.” … “People were telling me not to get involved, I got death threats, I got angrier and angrier. So I put myself out there.”

She tirelessly used her superstar power to raise awareness about the disease and funds ($270 million) for the fight against HIV/AIDS. She is an inspiration to me.

AIDS at 30; Action Required. This June will mark 30 years since the first AIDS case was reported.

So, where do things stand? We understand the disease a lot better now but we still have no vaccine. Certain populations in the U.S. and around the world are “safe” while certain (especially, people of color) are far from safe from HIV. People are living longer and more productive lives with HIV but every 9 and ½ minutes someone in the U.S. is infected with AIDS. (www.nineandahalfminutes.org)

There is still much to be done.

Continue the fight and stand up to those who would take funding away from groups like Planned Parenthood who provide crucial preventative care, education and screening to at-risk populations. Stand up to attempts to repeal provisions of the Affordable Health Care Act that protect people living with HIV/AIDS from insurance industry abuses. Stand up against the mob mentality of the religious right that in the name of budget balancing efforts is trying to erode what took activists like Elizabeth Taylor 30 years to accomplish – do not take your rights and the rights of those less fortunate than you for granted. Inaction when it comes to HIV/AIDS prevention and research is tantamount to negligent homicide or worse. Don’t look the other way. It is your time to act. . Fight for what is right. Use your voice and your voting power to provide hope for a cure and a vaccine.

In memory of Bernard Genest, Harold Wireman and their good friends in New Hope & Lambertville and the two Elizabeths, the famous actress to many, but to me, the fearless and powerful AIDS activist.

Tamara Fagin is a recovering tax attorney, mother of two, wife of one, and closet activist trying to get the courage to Embrace Controversy and Create a Movement.

Reclaiming the Means of Reproduction

Lilith Magazine asked me to review Michelle Goldberg’s The Means of Reproduction. The book waspublished earlier this year and at first I thought this review would be a bit dated. As it turns out, given the health reform debate in which women’s reproductive health is once again the battering ram for Republicans who want to kill reform and controversial fodder for the pundits, the subject matter couldn’t be more timely. In particular, Goldberg’s discussion of the damage done globally to women’s health by the Helms amendment shouts the warning about what might well happen in the U.S. if the Stupak-Pitts amendment prevails.

Michelle Goldberg’s captivating book, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World (Penguin Press, 2009) is perfectly timed to remind those who came of age post-Roe v Wade and might think they can relax under an Obama administration, just how much work is left to do. An investigative journalist and author previously of Kingdom Coming: the Rise of Christian Nationalism, Goldberg has imbued this long-running story with fresh power by telling it in her young feminist voice.

The Means of Reproduction is a sweeping history of U.S. foreign policy on international family planning that spans four continents and the covers issues such as birth control, abortion, HIV/AIDS, their intersections with environmental concerns and economic development, and the gender politics of all, while staying in intimate touch with how America’s policies affect real women globally.

The story begins during the 1960’s cold war when Republicans like John D. Rockefeller and, yes, George H.W. “Rubbers” Bush led the charge to secure U.S. funding for international family planning, convinced that population pressures threatened national security. Then as now, family planning proponents met predictable adversaries. Goldberg writes, “There is one thing that unites cultural conservatives throughout the world, a critique that joins Protestant fundamentalism, Islamists, Hindu Nationalists, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and ultramontane Catholics. All view women’s equality and self-possession as unnatural, a violation of the established order. Yet in one society after another, we can see the absence of women’s rights creating existential dangers.”

Goldberg glosses over the central role played by Family Planning International Assistance (as Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s international division was then known) in scaling family planning services overseas, and their lonely, ultimately unsuccessful, battle against the Global Gag Rule which off and on since Ronald Reagan’s presidency, has proscribed U.S. funding of birth control services to organizations that provide or even discuss abortion. (President Obama removed the Gag Rule by executive order but underlying legislation remains.)

But more important, The Means of Reproduction argues persuasively in today’s vernacular how the absence of women’s human right to reproductive self-determination contributes to overpopulation, environmental disaster, unhealthy families, HIV/AIDS, and sex-ratio imbalances that threaten global stability.

During my 30 years in the leadership of Planned Parenthood, I met many of the characters Goldberg depicts, with all their strengths and faults.  And having joined the movement soon after the infamous Helms amendment banned U. S. foreign assistance for abortion or abortion-related services, I hope her recounting of the political damage and human carnage Sen. Helms’ law has wreaked will ignite a ringing call to rescind it.

Reproductive rights aren’t everything women need, but without them, women can’t determine anything else in their lives. After eight years of the George W. Bush Administration’s all-out war on women’s rights, Goldberg awakens a new generation to the imperative of undoing the damage and moving forward vigorously once again.

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

The Yanks Are Coming–Back–Now What?

The road to the international agreements forged in Cairo and Beijing was long and fraught with cultural potholes, but nothing like the challenges that our own government placed in the path of women’s reproductive self-determination. Now, there’s been a 180 degree turn back to the future, and the world is relieved. But other countries have moved forward, so what’s the next step for the U.S.?

Linda Hirshman, author of Get to Work and columnist for Slate’s new XX among many other accomplishments, and I wrote this commentary. After we were rejected by the New York Times and the Washington Post (what else is new?), we decided it was too important an issue not to see the light of day. So we’re publishing it on RHREalityCheck, Huffington Post, and here on good ol’ Heartfeldt.

At the very moment the Obama administration’s decision to seek a U.S. seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council grabbed headlines, the United States quietly took the reins on the most important human rights issue for humanity’s future: sexual and reproductive rights. On March 31, State Department Acting Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration, Margaret Pollack, told delegates to the United Nations Commission on Population and Development, meeting in New York, that America was back.

Marking a 180 degree turnaround from Bush administration policies that fought international efforts to enable people to control their own reproductive fate, the U.S. will once again defend the “human rights and fundamental freedoms of women” and support “universal access to sexual and reproductive health.” Abstinence-only sex education, the bête noir of health providers attempting to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, was Kung-Fu kicked aside. Human rights apply to all regardless of sexual orientation. The U.S. commits to ratify CEDAW, the women’s rights treaty already signed by 185 nations, and even endorses “equal partnerships and sharing of responsibilities in all areas of family life, including in sexual and reproductive life.”

The global sigh of relief was palpable. For with all its money and diplomatic resources, the U.S. is the 10,000 gorilla in international reproductive policy. Now the question is, while this is certainly change we can believe in, is it all the change we need?

U.S. foreign policy since the 1970’s has included funding for international family planning programs. We’ve been the largest contributor to these preventive reproductive health services (by U.S. law, abortions aren’t funded) globally. The U.S. led the march to the groundbreaking 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development agreement that women’s rights and health, including reproductive rights and health, are central to development and poverty-reduction, environmental sustainability, and the strength and security of democracy itself.

Since the Reagan administration, though, cultural and religious conservatives have fought U.N. commitment to women’s reproductive rights. Reagan issued the first global gag rule denying U.S. funding to organizations that perform or even discuss abortion.

President Bill Clinton rescinded the gag rule; George W. Bush’s first official act was to reinstate it. In the last eight years, the United States government, in alignment with fundamentalist Islamic nations as well as Christian fundamentalists and Catholics, used U.N. meetings aggressively to push abstinence education and faith-based institutions as the source of guidance on sexuality and reproductive matters. And U.S. staff on the ground enforced the strictures on the ground with increasing zeal.

Women’s right to safe abortions were the sharp point of this wedge issue, but preventive family planning, comprehensive sex education, and HIV/AIDS prevention programs were opposed equally. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that—ironically–each year Bush denied them the $34 million funding Congress authorized, it led to 2 million preventable unintended pregnancies, 800,000 induced abortions, 4,700 maternal deaths, and 77,000 deaths of both mother and child.

European countries took up some slack; UNFPA’s largest supporter is now tiny Netherlands for example. And many of the nations in the developing world have contributed more than their fair share commitment stated in the Cairo agreement. But U.S. legitimacy suffered. After euphoria in Cairo, followed by the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing where then-First Lady Hillary Clinton declared, “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights,” reproductive rights advocates struggled to hold land they had gained while the largest richest country in the world aided the sexual conservatives.

Now all that has changed again. Not only did Obama rescind the global gag rule, UNFPA’s funding was reinstated and increased to $50 million. USAID’s 2009 budget for international family planning assistance increased to $545 million from $457 million in 2008. All great news. The 10,000 pound gorilla has pivoted back to the future.

But much of the world has advanced since Cairo to a more ambitious agenda for women’s full social and economic equality. And what does that mean for the U.S. vision for its own leadership role for women, population, and development globally?

Domestically, five former directors of USAID’s Population and Reproductive Health Program are calling for immediate doubling of U.S. funding for family planning overseas, to $1.2 billion and increasing to $1.5 billion over the next few years, if global anti-poverty and development goals are to be achieved amid the worldwide economic downturn.

And it is essential that the U.S. address the legitimate place of safe and legal abortion within women’s reproductive health and human rights; after all, in meanwhile, groups opposed to women’s rights and abortion are redoubling their efforts to push back. That is why the Center for Reproductive Rights and other organizations are working to establish legal theories regarding why reproductive rights are indeed human rights , and we can see in countries such as Mexico how these perspectives are advancing women’s access to safe, legal abortion based on human rights  rather than the right to privacy as in the U.S.

Michelle Goldberg argued persuasively in her recent book, “The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World,” that the absence of women’s reproductive rights contributes to overpopulation, environmental disaster, family instability, HIV/AIDS, and sex-ratio imbalances that threaten global stability. Other matters may make more news, but nothing will make more difference. Whatever the next steps in this continuing struggle, U.S. policy will lead the way.

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

This is What Winning an Election Will Do

Madam Chair,

I am honored to be here today to express the renewed and deep commitment of the United States Government to the goals and aspirations of the ICPD Program of Action. President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, and Ambassador Rice as well as the United States Congress, have already acted strongly to support women’s and young people’s health, human rights, and empowerment; global partnership; and the wider development agenda embraced by the Program of Action.

These opening lines of the U.S. government’s official statement, so calmly delivered March 31 by Margaret J. Pollack, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, and Head of the United States Delegation to the United Nations Commission on Population and Development, belied the sea change they represent in U.S. relationship with the United Nations in general and in particular with the global consensus reached at the ICPD in Cairo fifteen years ago that women’s human rights and health, including reproductive rights and health, are central to global economic development, poverty reduction, environmental sustainability, and global security.

Pollack, a career civil servant who has worked in the State Department under both Republican and Democratic administrations referred to herself in an interview with me last week as “the lantern in the cave” simply delivering the current administration’s message that the U.S. is going “back to the future”–i.e., the one when Bill Clinton was president–in our policies and leadership for women’s rights globally.

The statement was delivered the same day that the U.S. declared its desire to be seated on the U.N Human Rights Council, and shortly before President and Mrs. Obama jetted off for London to see the Queen–oh, and to attend the G-20 meeting, followed by other European stops where the still young administration is being greeted with much excitement and renewed good will for America. Everyone seems particularly pleased to have an American president who can string a complete sentence together and actually values global diplomacy. Novel idea, no?

All in all, this week has illustrated what a difference an election makes, and we dare not let that thought escape our consciousness: without a doubt anti-choice and other right-wing groups that are already mobilizing to take us back to their preferred future.

I served on the U.S. government delegation to the Cairo + 5 conference a decade ago, when country representatives from the 190 or so nation members of the the U.N. gathered to evaluate progress toward the Cairo consensus. We had our challenges to be sure, but could not have then anticipated the trench warfare and sock in the gut to women’s progress that eight years of George W. Bush’s administration would bring. So when I read our nation’s “new” statement, tears of joy welled up in my eyes.

There are many powerful nuances, such as saying the US will “work in partnership” and acknowledging the expertise of others, which the arrogant Bushies rarely did. A few other salient points:

Abstinence-only sex education has been Kung-Fu kicked aside. Condoms for HIV/AIDS prevention are in–or hopefully, on–again.

The phrase “universal access to sexual and reproductive health and the protection and promotion of reproductive rights” definitely ushers in a sigh of relief moment, since to the dismay of most of the rest of the world, the U.S. hadn’t uttered them in eight long years..

“We also support the ICPD understanding that the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women must be protected, so that women can make their own health and fertility decisions, which helps to ensure healthy, productive families and communities as well as sustainable, prosperous, and stable societies.” Clear, unequivocal. (The statement doesn’t address abortion specifically however-that’s clearly one of the areas where we need to advance beyond Cairo.)

Human rights for all regardless of sexual orientation are asserted, as are “linkages between HIV/AIDS and voluntary family planning programs.” and CEDAW ratification as a priority. I didn’t expect they would tie all these together and the sexual orientation inclusion was a surprise to me though might not be to others more inside.

But let me stop interpreting. Pour yourself a cup of your favorite beverage, sit down, put your feet up, and take a few minutes to savor reading the full statement. Then remind yourself why it’s important to be actively engaged in the political process today and every day.

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.