Monday, September 29, 2008

Health Minister's Removal the Right RX

Hours after taking office, South Africa's new president announced he was removing Manto Tshabalala-Msimang as health minister.

At last, Dr. Beetroot has been uprooted.

Dr. Tshabalala-Msimang truly earned her reputation as an international laughingstock during her tenure as health minister. She met South Africa's AIDS crisis with all the medical sense of Dr. Seuss.

Scientists may believe antiretroviral drugs are the best way of fighting AIDS, but you couldn't prove that by her. She often expressed doubt over the drugs' side effects. Instead, she told HIV-positive people to eat beetroot, garlic, lemon, olive oil and potatoes.

That's how she came by her nicknames of "Dr. Beetroot" and "Dr. Garlic." It seems to me "Dr. Do-Little" works too.

Tshabalala-Msimang wasn't the only one in government with warped views. She was a close ally of former president Thabo Mbeki, who became infamous for denying that HIV causes AIDS. Clearly a world leader in the mold of Ronald "I-will-not-say-AIDS" Reagan.

The Treatment Action Campaign, South Africa's leading AIDS activist organization, regularly fought the health minister in the courts. "Over 2 million South Africans died of AIDS during the presidency of Thabo Mbeki. At least 300,000 deaths could have been avoided," said the group after Tshabalala-Msimang was removed. "Mbeki and his health minister pursued a policy of politically supported AIDS denialism and undermined the scientific governance of medicine."

In other words, nuts to your vegetables.

The opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, had a blunt response to her departure: "Tens of thousands of South Africans have lost their lives because of her ridiculous policies on HIV/AIDS, and she should have been fired nine years ago."

The bellows for her resignation peaked in 2006. At the International AIDS Conference in Toronto that year, the nation of South Africa, like many others, had a display. South Africa's exhibition was festooned with beetroot, lemons and garlic. Reportedly the resulting criticism prompted health ministry employees to toss on a few bottles of pills. I assume this didn't stop the criticism, nor add much aesthetically.

In a speech in Toronto, then-U.N. envoy for AIDS in Africa, Stephen Lewis, blasted the Mbeki government's AIDS policies as "more worthy of a lunatic fringe than of a concerned and compassionate state."

Tshabalala-Msimang then declared Lewis was as unwelcome in South Africa as nail fungus, prompting over 80 international scientists to pen an open letter to Mbeki.

"To promote ineffective, immoral policies on HIV/AIDS endangers lives," they wrote. "To have as a health minister a person who now has no international respect is an embarrassment to the South African government."

But Dr. Beetroot remained planted in office until now. Mbeki's successor as president, Kgalema Motlanthe, moved her to a lesser position in his office. She's now head of government communications.

If that means she deals with the media, expect fireworks. Consider how, speaking to reporters after being sworn in, she pooh-poohed previous criticism. "The only critics were the media, and the media had lost perception," she said.

Since her critics were actually everywhere, inside and outside South Africa, it seems she's the one who doesn't excel in the perception department.

Her replacement faces a mountain of a job. South Africa has the most people with HIV in the world, some 5.4 million. No sweat.

A group of AIDS activists saw to it that the new health minister got off to a good start. The activists, thrilled at Dr. Beetroot's re-assignment, gathered outside the Cape Town apartment of new minister Barbara Hogan, and serenaded her. She came down from her apartment and drank champagne with them. Hogan told them she was "deeply touched."

She must be to take on this job.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Like Oil and Holy Water

Here's the sort of math I understand: Pope Benedict XVI + gays = a hoo-hah.

Europe offers two recent examples of how charged, how volatile the relationship is between the Pope and homosexuals.

Prior to the pontiff's arrival in France for a four-day visit, the French daily newspaper Le Figaro reported that French police were spying on groups critical of the Pope. Those under surveillance included ACT-UP, at loggerheads with Benedict over condom use to prevent HIV/AIDS, and LGBT groups, at loggerheads with Benedict over just about everything.

The spies wanted to learn about plans for protests. The newspaper reported that French authorities were hot to avoid what happened in July when the Pope visited Australia.

It didn't rain men in Sydney, but it did rain condoms.

About 500 people protesting Benedict's opposition to homosexuality and contraception tossed condoms at Catholics who were on a pilgrimage walk as part of the church's World Youth Day. Protesters chanted, "Pope go homo, gay is great," and sang, "Pope is wrong, put a condom on."

Those protesting the Pope's visit included gays, contraception advocates, survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic priests—and members of a cult that believes Jesus was sent by aliens. The latter actually make me a tad sympathetic toward His Holiness.

If French authorities learned about planned protests by spying on LGBT groups, what actions would they be motivated to take? Outlaw cloudbursts of condoms? Forbid chants with puns?

I don't know enough about the French take on civil liberties to gauge how irked the LGBT folks might be at having been spied on by their government. If they feel their rights have been violated, perhaps they'll take a symbolic step: stop eating "frites" and start eating "freedom fries."

France's anti-terror squad conducted the surveillance. Boy, are ACT-UP and the other groups appalled that they're lumped together with al-Qaeda, or honored that they're taken as such a serious threat? After all, ACT-UP is likely to stage a die-in, while al-Qaeda opts to arrange the real thing.

Meanwhile in Italy a comedian is in big trouble for a joke about the Pope and gays. In July stand-up comic Sabina Guzzanti performed at an anti-politics rally in Rome organized by a satirist. She said that Pope Benedict XVI would "go to hell and be pursued by two big, gay and very active devils."

There's a picture.

Now Guzzanti is in devilishly hot water. In Italy it's a crime to "offend the honor" of the Pope or the president. Saying Guzzanti's words exceeded satire, the Rome city prosecutor is seeking permission from the federal justice minister to begin criminal proceedings against the comedian.

Conviction could land her in prison for up to five years. That's a place where she might learn a thing or two about same-sex pursuit.

This isn't the only time Guzzanti has pushed the Italian envelope. Recently she suggested that the equal opportunities minister, who had worked in the past as a topless model, earned her job by performing oral sex on the prime minister.

Obviously Guzzanti is not making friends in high places.

Now her joke about the Pope being pursued by lecherous gay devils has her under investigation for "vilification" of the pontiff.

Pope Benedict XVI has often vilified gays, but authorities have yet to place him under investigation.

The pontiff could take a step toward reducing the friction between himself and the international gay community by telling Italian authorities to leave Guzzanti alone. Until Benedict throttles back on his antagonism toward LGBT people, the mutual dislike and electrically charged atmosphere will continue. Which means that many of the places on earth he visits will experience electrical storms and condom showers.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Farewell to Del

Del Martin died an honest woman. After five decades of living in sin, of shacking up, of living outside the bonds of marriage, she finally wed the love of her life just two months before she died.

Did she have some sort of moral awakening? No, the California Supreme Court did.

When the court legalized same-sex marriage, Martin, 87, married her female partner, Phyllis Lyon, 83. The two had been a couple longer than Sears and Roebuck. As a lesbian pioneer, Del Martin, who died on Aug. 27, is part of the reason the court and society have evolved so profoundly on gay rights.

Personally, it's a mystery to me how one person can possess such guts and certainty. I have a feeling someone else got shortchanged.

Martin and Lyon met in Seattle in 1950 when both were journalists for a trade publication. Two years later the friends became lovers, and on Valentine's Day in 1953 they moved in together in San Francisco.

In 1955 they and six other lesbians co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis, initially meant to provide social activities and quiet support for lesbians. DOB became the first national lesbian advocacy organization.

As an aside, I've long wondered who or what "Bilitis" was. Turns out she was a lesbian on the isle of Lesbos in a poem by Pierre Louys called "Song of Bilitis." As to how the word is pronounced, you're on your own.

Martin was DOB's first president. In the first issue of "The Ladder," the group's newsletter that would become a monthly magazine, she wrote, "Nothing was ever accomplished by hiding in a dark corner. Why not discard the hermitage for the heritage that awaits any red-blooded American woman who dares to claim it?"

In the 1950s such words must've seemed as charged as, well, the electroshock treatments lesbians then endured.

In 1964 Martin helped found the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, aimed at overturning laws criminalizing homosexual behavior. In 1972 she and Lyon co-authored the book "Lesbian/Woman," an honest look at lesbian lives. That year she and Lyon also co-founded the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, the nation's first gay political club.

I'm sure these women must've gone on vacation. Once.

Martin fought against sexism within the gay rights movement, and against homophobia within the women's movement. She was the first out lesbian on the National Organization for Women's board of directors. In 1976 Martin published "Battered Wives," and became a nationally known advocate for battered women.

In 1995 she and Lyon were delegates to the White House Conference on Aging, where they made a splash by announcing to attendees that LGBT people actually age too.

They were the poster children for the personal is political. The capper was getting legally hitched. Twice.

When San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom unleashed gay marriage in 2004, canny politicos saw that Martin and Lyon went first. I'll never forget that photo of the two elderly, lively women with their foreheads pressed together, ringed by teary activists.

The San Francisco marriages were voided, and I bet you can guess who served as plaintiffs in the California marriage case that led the state Supreme Court to scuttle the ban on gay nuptials.

On June 16, after a mere 55 years of co-habitation, Martin and Lyon stood in front of Mayor Newsom and were wed. Legally handcuffed.

After Martin's death, Lyon said, "I am devastated, but I take some solace in knowing we were able to enjoy the ultimate rite of love and commitment before she passed."

Del and Phyllis were political until the end—and beyond. Mourners are asked to contribute in Del's name to the fight against the proposed state marriage ban. Flowers are nice, but freedom lasts longer.