As a non-American citizen I sometimes find it hard to grasp just how far to the Right some powerful US politicians are. Jesse Helms * is a classic example of this: an unapologetic white supremacist, he opposed everything from women’s rights to disability rights and affirmative action.
Not surprisingly, he was also immensely homophobic and would go to great lengths to block any legislation that ran counter to his bigoted world view. In 1987, for example, he claimed a gay men’s safer sex comic had been produced with Federal funding. This was completely untrue but this deception allowed him to push through an amendment to the AIDS funding bill. That amendment prohibited the use of Federal funds on materials that, “promote or encourage, directly or indirectly, homosexual activities.” *
That same year he slipped an amendment into the Supplemental Appropriations Act, adding HIV to the list of ‘excludable diseases’ that prevented people from entering the USA.
Its impact was immediate: for example, overseas delegates to AIDS conferences were detained by immigration officials at their ports of entry. In response, a wide range of organisations including the International Red Cross, the British Medical Association and the European Parliament boycotted the 1990 International AIDS Conference in San Francisco. (Interestingly, this was the same conference that then President George H W Bush declined to address, choosing instead to attend a fund-raising event for Helms). *
In 1988 Helms argued against Federal funding of AIDS research on the grounds that, “There is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy.” He also slowed down the passage of the funding bill by proposing various amendments.
He was also successful in achieving a ban on Federal funding of needle exchanges. This ban remained in place from 1988 until 2009 when it was finally over-turned. But it was reinstated in 2011 and is still in force today – the enduring legacy of a small-minded bigot who died in 2008.
- There is more detailed information on Jesse Helms and other members of America’s New Right in my book, Gay in the 80s. Full details are available here.