AIDS activist Jerry Thacker withdrew his name two weeks ago from the list of Bush administration nominees to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS amid a firestorm of criticism.
After gay groups charged Thacker with calling homosexuality a "deathstyle" and AIDS "the gay plague," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer distanced the President from the endorsement.
"Those words are as wrong as they are inappropriate. And they are not shared by the President," Fleischer told a press briefing. "The views that [Thacker] holds are far, far removed from what the President believes."
On Wednesday The Washington Post reported that the incident has continued to cause waves in the advisory council. Executive director Patricia Ware, who recommended Thacker for nomination, recently relinquished her position. "Administration officials said Ware was being promoted to a more influential role," the Post reported. "But several sources involved … said she was moved to avoid further embarrassment over the selection of Jerry Thacker."
Thacker, a marketing consultant in Pennsylvania, tested positive in 1986 for HIV following a blood donation. After additional blood tests, Thacker discovered that his wife and daughter were both also infected. His wife had apparently contracted HIV from a blood transfusion during her third pregnancy.
Founder of the marketing consultant firm Right Ideas, Thacker then started the not-for-profit Scepter Institute to educate Christians about HIV/AIDS. Through the foundation, Thacker speaks to churches and organizations on AIDS policies, the realities of the disease, and the importance of abstinence and fidelity.
Todd Hertz, assistant online editor for Christianity Today, talked to Thacker this week about his nomination, Ware's resignation from the advisory committee, and the political forces that have endangered HIV/AIDS activism.
Why did you remove your name as a nominee to the AIDS panel?
The AIDS panel is made up of 35 individuals who ostensibly have the obligation of crafting recommendations for the Secretary of Health and Human Services to help eliminate, fight, and alleviate the pain from this disease.
Upon closer examination, however, you find this panel has gradually become a political thing. When I saw this, I questioned whether or not my effectiveness on that panel would be worth the time investment.
As someone who is HIV infected and has a wife and daughter who are infected, I'm very conscious of my own time, limitations, and commitments. I'm here to be savory salt and brilliant light in a dying world, and I don't want to sit on a panel that's just going to pass the political ping-pong ball back and forth to gain political advantage.
What is your interpretation of what happened after your nomination to the panel?
The primary tactic used by gay radicals is intimidation. They're going to be in your face and they're going to be noisy.
They heard that I was from Bob Jones [University], a conservative, and a Christian. They surmised that I would call homosexuality a sin, and the knee-jerk reaction was, "That makes him antigay, a homophobe, and a real problem for us. Let's brand him, scare him, and go on down the road." Anybody who crosses them will get that same treatment.
I'm really saddened by the fact that the media, such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle, did not do their homework. Without knowing anything about me, or that I've never had a bad experience with a gay person in my speeches to half a million people, or the fact that I'm not antigay but very much anti-HIV, these folks picked up the diatribe written by the gay radicals and ran it as fact. To me, this shows their predisposition to that viewpoint.
Were you surprised by the White House's reaction?
That also is a sad part of this whole chronicle. When I heard that the White House press office had, without checking any facts, reacted to what was printed in the papers as truth, I was hurt simply because they didn't do their homework.
My wife and I love George Bush. We pray for him regularly. But it was irresponsible for the people that he surrounds himself with to misrepresent our position and to believe the lies of the gay radicals.
How do you respond to criticism of your use of phrases like deathstyle and gay plague?
First of all, the term gay plague is not something that I coined. If you do a very quick web search you'll come up with probably a couple hundred hits that show you that that term was used by the medical community and even the gays themselves in the mid-'80s to describe what was happening.
The only way that I've ever used the term gay plague was as a historical reference to what people are actually calling it. This disease was originally called GRID for "Gay Related Immune Deficiency."
The term deathstyle also is not something that's original to me. There are many things that could be characterized that way. I would say that my granddad, who smoked unfiltered Camels for 50 years, practiced a deathstyle. It caught up with him at age 78.
If you check in Pat Buchanan's books, you'll find he uses the same term for anyone who decides to have large numbers of sexual partners. They are courting death. It's been proven scientifically that multiple sexual partners and an early debut of sexual activity in teenagers increases the risk of getting HIV and the other STDs that are out there.
Whether gay or straight?
Exactly. If people do risk activities that involve the exchange of bodily fluids—male or female—sexual fluids, or blood and they contain HIV, the possibility exists for the person to become infected. Those are the scientific facts. To say that isn't the truth is to be in denial about what we know of this disease.
Have you faced antigay allegations earlier in your HIV/AIDS activism?
The only other allegations were when I spoke at a family values rally down in South Carolina. Apparently one of the gay papers down there wrote an article on me. But that was not as scurrilous as what the folks in Washington did.
I've had nothing but good experiences, really. Even at that same rally, I had two leaders within Greenville gay circles compliment me on presenting a balanced presentation of correct information. So I really can't say that I've had that many challenges or problems.
Were you surprised that executive director Patricia Ware left the advisory council last week?
I don't know if that surprised me because Pat has been a spokesperson for a basically Christian worldview on this issue for probably 10 to 15 years. The position that she was in has been politicized to the point to where I don't know that there's anything that she could do, short of adopting a totally progay agenda, that would not get her criticized.
You can only live in that kind of dynamic tension for so long. And then you have to say, "Wait a minute, what am I doing here? I'm really not accomplishing what I wanted to do," and you have to move on. So I'm not surprised. I'm chagrined a little bit simply because she is a good lady who's trying to do what I believe the purpose of the advisory council was: figuring out ways to eliminate this virus from the world.
Have you lost faith in what politics can do in fighting this disease?
I think it will be easier for us to work in foreign countries on this issue than to work here in the United States. That's unfortunate, but it's because of the politicization of homosexuality that we are somewhat limited in our options.
There are people in Washington who understand that this is not class battle—not homosexuals versus the rest of us—but it's indeed an issue that has to do with the virus. Because of the political inroads made over the last 20 years by those using this for political advantage, it's going to be important for us to keep bringing the message back to the disease.
Hopefully, through things like what just happened, people will understand that Christian folks are not a bunch of wild and crazy people when it comes to this disease. All we're about is helping people get through life and on to eternity.
Before witnessing the political games that are played, what opportunities did you feel the advisory council could afford you?
There are people in the church who are battling this disease. However, the conservative church has not been represented on any of these types of advisory councils in any kind of profusion.
I still believe that the 330,000 churches in the country do not understand HIV, need to understand HIV, and have tremendous resources that can be applied to the care of both physical and spiritual people who have HIV regardless of how they got it. I was hoping to be able to bring that viewpoint to this group.
However, the folks for whom HIV and homosexual [activism is] strategically entwined really could [not] care less about the fact that we're infected. To them, the whole thing is about using this disease as a means for political power and getting the wealthy United States to further their deathstyle.
How does your faith affect your message and your work in fighting HIV/AIDS?
When someone tells you you're going to die, you figure out what's important about living. And for us in the Thacker family, our faith in Christ has kept us going.
The mortality rate of human beings on Earth over time is 100 percent, so we're all going to die. We're all terminal. But I believe especially Christians tend to think we're guaranteed three score and ten, when in reality that's not the case. We're given this day.
I believe that God brought HIV into our family (because we obviously weren't looking for it and had never done anything to get it) as a means of helping people of faith, churches, Christian colleges, regular secular colleges, and high schools to understand their own mortality and to understand that even though man thinks he's smart, there are things in this world that he can't handle because of the Fall.
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