Sanders campaign again attacks top AIDS activist; LGBT community livid

The LGBT community wanted a war on AIDS, so Bernie Sanders gave them a war on AIDS activists instead.

For the second time in a week, the Sanders campaign has launched an oddly personal attack on Peter Staley, one of America’s top AIDS activists.

Coincidentally, Staley, who has played a pivotal role in the HIV/AIDS movement for nearly 30 years, will be making an appearance in this week’s “AIDS Crisis” episode of CNN’s series “The 1980s.”

The attack came once again from Sanders’ senior policy adviser Warren Gunnels, who falsely accused Staley, who has committed his life to HIV activism, of selling out people with AIDS to the pharmaceutical industry.

American AIDS activist Peter Staley.

American AIDS activist Peter Staley.

The Sanders campaign became enraged with Staley and other AIDS activists, including many who are (or were) Bernie Sanders supporters, after the activists called Sanders out for lying about his meeting with the activists last week. In that meeting, the activists raised their concerns about a drug initiative taking place in California, and sponsored by an anti-PrEP organization. When the meeting finished, Sanders issued a press release claiming the activists had joined the Vermont Senator in supporting the initiative.

In response to Sanders’ false claim, the attendees, both Bernie and Hillary supporters, issued a public letter to Sanders. Sanders’ staff responded by questioning Staley’s integrity:


The Sanders campaign subsequently deleted Gunnels’ tweet about Staley, only to resurface the attack this week, which means this was a conscious decision made at the highest levels of the campaign. Sanders’ argument is that Staley used pharmaceutical educational grants to finance his life-saving HIV/AIDS resource site. A fact that Staley freely admits, as it was the only funding available at the time, came with no strings attached, and without it the site would have ceased to exist.

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Sanders is no stranger to controversy over HIV/AIDS. His campaign was criticized two months ago for not including even a mention of HIV on the campaign Web site’s LGBT page; and it was only after such criticism that Sanders finally came out with a last-minute plan to fight HIV should he become president. Sanders further enraged the AIDS community when he backed out of a meeting with them last month, at the last minute, and refused to reschedule, giving the appearance that he no longer saw any political gain in listening to the AIDS community’s concerns. It was the rescheduled meeting that Sanders then lied about in his press release.

Staley posted the latest exchange with the Sanders campaign on Facebook, and putting aside for a moment the propriety and wisdom of Sanders’ incessant effort to take down one of America’s top AIDS activists, it was particularly interesting to read the comments the post received from others in the LGBT and HIV activist community. Apparently, the AIDS community’s relationship with drug companies like Gilead is complicated to say the least. A nuance that Sanders has missed entirely.

First off, Staley notes that the Web site he used to run,, wouldn’t have survived without the unrestricted educational grants they received from drug companies. In other words, people would have died without the critical information the site was providing for people with AIDS back in the earlier days of the Internet.

Here’s Staley on Facebook:

At, we didn’t have ads before the merger with POZ. We survived on unrestricted educational grants from pharma. We never held our tongue, and lost a sponsor — Abbott — for joining the boycott over their Norvir price increase. AHF [the anti-PrEP group that Sanders has aligned himself with] joined the boycott too, and agreed to drop it after negotiating a huge grants with Abbott.

AIDSmeds was a bare-bones operation. No offices. Just me and freelancers like Tim Horn and Spencer Cox and programmers, etc. No one got rich by providing this highly admired and free website to people living with HIV.

A number of others weighed in, agreeing with Staley, while being highly critical of Sanders:

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As I’d mentioned in my earlier story, Staley’s involvement in HIV/AIDS activism goes back nearly to the beginning. He joined the movement in the 1980s, and has been a vocal leader ever since. I remember first hearing of Staley when he joined a group of ACT-UPers in unfurling a banner at the New York Stock Exchange.

On September 14, 1989, Staley and six other activists staged another demonstration to protest the rising cost of [AIDS drug] AZT, this time in the New York Stock Exchange. Dressed in suits and carrying fake credentials, they chained themselves to a balcony above the trading floor before unfurling a banner that read “Sell Wellcome”, drowned out the opening bell with airhorns, and dropped fake $100 bills that read, “Fuck your profiteering. We die while you play business,” on the traders below. Within days, Burroughs Wellcome lowered the price of AZT by 20%.

That’s Peter.

I spoke with Alan Klein, a founding member of ACT UP/NY; co-founder of Queer Nation; and a partner atPublic Impact Media Consultants, about the latest in the ongoing controversy:

Peter is getting attacked for saying what other activists, including Bernie supporters, have also been saying about the meeting with Sanders.

A famous AIDS button from the late 80s, early 90s. My friend Paul Clark had a t-shirt with this design that he used to love wearing in Billings, MT in 1991. Paul got a chuckle out of the fact that people would complement him on his “Mickey Mouse” shirt without having a clue what it actually meant.

A famous AIDS button from the late 80s, early 90s. My friend Paul Clark had a t-shirt with this design that he used to love wearing in Billings, MT in 1991. Paul got a chuckle out of the fact that people would compliment him on his “Mickey Mouse” shirt without having a clue what it actually meant.

As for the attacks on Peter’s credibility, the Sanders campaign isn’t showing any understanding about drug prices, about what the AIDS activist movement has done to save lives, nor does it show any recognition of what we did collectively to force drug companies to develop drugs that actually saved people’s lives.

I remember in the late 1980s, when Peter first walked in to an ACT UP meeting at the then- Gay & Lesbian Center in NYC. 350 eyes turned to this cute young guy wearing a really expensive suit, looking like he’d just walked in from Wall Street (he had). We actually wondered if he’d gotten lost. Peter immediately got involved, became a very influential and productive member of ACT UP, and ended up leading our fundraising efforts.

I asked Klein, who has not publicly endorsed either Hillary or Bernie, why he thought the Sanders campaign keeps attacking Staley:

I think they’re really confused. It shows a profound and baffling lack of understanding of HIV/AIDS and the AIDS activist movement, and for that matter the LGBT community – they simply don’t understand what’s important to us.

What policy is Sanders pushing here? He wants to say that AIDS activists have not been the driving force in getting drugs to people who need them in order to keep them alive? The Sanders campaign has clearly abandoned the LGBT vote on the eve of the CA primary — which makes absolutely no sense at all.

Apparently now even AIDS activists are establishment. Where will the purge end?

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Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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