A Shift in Gears

Joe Pressley looks to new avenues to battle AIDS, homophobia, racism

Joe Pressley wages his biggest battle yet for New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS, himself included.

As the New York AIDS Coalition’s departing executive director, Pressley is the leader of the coalition of organizations and activists struggling to make sure that federal funding for HIV in New York isn’t decimated in the pending reauthorization of the Ryan White CARE Act. Ryan White is the federal program that for 15 years has provided direct funds for services for people with HIV across the country. As Congress considers a five-year reauthorization, there is a titanic battle in Washington between Bush administration-led, Republican forces that want to redirect resources toward Southern states and less highly urbanized areas in the country and others in Congress, many, but not all of them, Democrats, who are trying to protect funding for cities like New York that have borne a disproportionate burden of AIDS cases.

Pressley, who turns 43 in November, has worked at NYAC almost continuously since 1992, with brief stints at Gay Men’s Health Crisis and Harlem United along the way. He was appointed by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to the New York State AIDS Advisory Council, which advises on the disbursement of government dollars to fight the epidemic, and served as president of the Out People of Color Political Action Club, a citywide nonpartisan LGBT group. Under his leadership, NYAC has advocated strongly for appropriate HIV education in the New York schools as part of a curriculum that integrates human sexuality and identity in a positive way. Pressley will soon leave NYAC as he completes his undergraduate education and look for new opportunities to create social change on behalf of New Yorkers facing battles such as HIV disease and institutional racism.

Public about his own HIV-positive status as an African American gay man, Pressley sat down with Gay City News and delicately walked the line between representing a non-partisan agency and expressing his umbrage at events unfolding in our nation’s capital and their potential impact on New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS.

CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: Where do we in New York City stand right now on Ryan White reauthorization?

JOE PRESSLEY: Right now New York City and State stand to lose millions upon millions of dollars from the federal government if the proposals as put forth by the Republican leadership in Congress go forward. Some data runs have estimated upwards of $80 million for the state and $20 million for the city. What that means is that AIDS care that has been developed over the last two decades under this program is in jeopardy of being dismantled.

This would be catastrophic, I believe, but the elephant in the room is that some folks in Washington believe that New York gets too much money, that we have a Cadillac program. But the truth is that we get more money because we have more AIDS cases. Places in the rural Southern states like Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina have been devastated by HIV, but the solution is not to move dollars down the Eastern seaboard on the turnpike. We need the feds to appropriate the necessary amount of funding to make sure that every region of the country can manage, not to pit us against each other. In the age of Iraq and the war in the Middle East, health care priorities seem to be taking a back seat to national security issues.

CM: What does NYAC need New Yorkers to do to help?

JP: This is not just a NYAC effort. It’s a broad coalition of groups trying to make sure we have a strong voice on Capitol Hill. In order to win this, folks need to get out and vote. We need to vote for members of Congress who will fight for the necessary level of funding for AIDS.

CM: Senator Clinton was the only member of the Senate Health Committee to vote against reauthorization in its current form.

JP: She has been fantastic on this issue and in this fight. She’s taken some heat from around the country by people saying that her leadership has hurt the process, but nothing could be further from the truth. I applaud the work she’s done to say, “Hold on a minute, we need a Ryan White Act that protects resources all across the country.” Her actions on this are certainly a strong sign that she understands the needs of New Yorkers living with HIV.

CM: At the forum on these issues at GMHC recently, Patrick McGovern, the executive director of Harlem United said, “We need to decide now if no bill is better than a bad bill.” He was making the case for a continuing resolution to keep funding going at current levels while debate would continue. Is no bill, and for now simply a continuing resolution, better than a bad bill?

JP: I think so. Right now we have a bill that needs some tweaking, but a bill as bad as the one that had been proposed would spell disaster for New York State and many of the larger metropolitan areas around the country. Many of the leaders in Congress are playing politics with this money that directly impacts the lives of people with HIV. We definitely need to stop a bad bill from passing into law.

CM: As a black gay man living openly with HIV, what upsets you most about this situation?

JP: What upsets me most is the underlying belief that our lives are expendable. If this were something that was happening to white young teenagers in the suburbs or in well-to-do communities, there would be an outpouring of resources for this struggle.

CM: Is this battle for Ryan White reauthorization the biggest you’ve faced during your tenure at NYAC?

JP: There have been so many battles. But, yes, this probably is the battle that will have the biggest impact on services for people living with HIV/AIDS. Ryan White is the largest funder of AIDS care outside of Medicaid and Medicare and what many programs are built on top of. If it collapsed, it could lead to a domino effect on AIDS care throughout the city, state, and country.

CM: It is hard for you that this is both a professional and a personal fight?

JP: I don’t feel like it’s hard because we’ve been fighting for our lives throughout the history of the epidemic. What is difficult is that sometimes people feel tired of working on AIDS. That’s difficult. I say, “Come on, guys, we have to fight now more than ever and build broader coalitions.” That’s the difficulty.

CM: Your tenure at NYAC is almost over. What’s next?

JP: I started here in 1992, so NYAC has been home for a long time. I’ll be exploring different things. I’m definitely staying in New York. I’ll still work on HIV/AIDS, but trying to continue linking that concretely to lesbian and gay rights and issues facing the black community. I think one of the things missing in HIV/AIDS advocacy these days is the strong voice of the lesbian and gay community. I just hope as we move forward that we’re doing all we can to keep the issue of AIDS at the forefront of gay concerns.

The numbers of black gay men who are infected are astronomical. One study showed 46 percent of black men who have sex with men in some urban areas are HIV-infected. A lot of this stems in large part, I think, from stigma and homophobia. I hope many more of us can make the connection between gay stigma and HIV transmission. In the black gay community, many black men who have sex with men don’t feel good about the sex they are participating in or don’t feel good about their same-sex desires. A lot of that comes from society telling us we aren’t valuable as we are. If we can make young black men feel better about who they are, they’ll probably make better choices. I remember growing up in my church and my minister saying, “If there is anyone in here who’s gay, you need to get up and walk on out.” I got up and left.

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