Saturday, November 20, 2010

HRW Must Apologize for Labeling
People With AIDS as 'Victims'

The normally very politically correct Human Rights Watch, where Ken Roth is the chief executive, slipped up in its choice of words to say something positive about a Cameroonian gay and AIDS activist, Steave Nemande, and his work on behalf of persons with AIDS (PWAs). The non-governmental organization egregiously called PWAs "victims" in a release yesterday.

My two attempts to prompt an apology and dialogue with HRW came to naught. Emails to several HRW executives and gay researchers didn't bring forth a reply, as of Saturday afternoon. Below are my note to Roth, pictured above, and excerpts from their release with the stigmatization of PWAs:

I am a person living with AIDS and today have been made aware of an announcement from your organization regarding an upcoming meeting in New York City. The announcement uses the incredibly stigmatizing and disempowering term "HIV and AIDS victims," in describing the work and people helped by the keynote speaker at your meeting.

Ever since the AIDS epidemic began, people with the disease have valiantly struggled to overcome many medical, social, political and psychological barriers and ignorance. Indeed, PWAs still wrestle with those obstacles every day.

Whenever we are defined as victims, an unacceptable layer of stigma is draped over us.

I would like to request that you immediately issue an apology to PWAs, and that it be sent to all of the recipients of the original announcement. Additionally, I believe your staff needs to be educated about the proper terminology preferred by PWAs and our allies, and why we reject the victim label.

Please use the offensive language in your release as an opportunity to not only help reduce the stigma faced by PWAs and educate your researchers, but also to teach a wider audience about the importance of helping to empower us with respectful terms.

Sections of the HRW release:

Please join us on Monday, November 22, 2010 from 3:00pm-4:00pm for the Human Rights Watch Open Meeting. The meeting will be held in our NY office on the 34th floor of the Empire State Building and will feature one of the 2010 Voices for Justice Honorees, Steave Nemande. [...]

Steave Nemande, president of the human rights organization Alternatives-Cameroun, speaks out against laws criminalizing homosexuality. In Africa, an overwhelming majority of countries still consider homosexuality an offence punishable by lengthy jail sentences and, in some cases, the death penalty. Steave, a medical doctor, also runs the Access Centre health care facility. Alternatives-Cameroun established the Centre two years ago to care for HIV and AIDS victims within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. [...] (Emphasis mine.)

I hold out hope that HRW will eventually do the right thing and apologize to people with HIV and AIDS. If you wish to pressure HRW to take steps and correct their mistake, please contact Roth at , the supervisor for HRW's gay division, Iain Levine, at , and the researcher who sent the release, Brittany Mitchell at .


Ed Sikov said...

Oh sweet mother of god, not this again. We went through this already 20 years ago and more. Don't they see how demeaning this is? Don't they care about people's right to define themselves? I will never forget Michael Hirsch popping over to the microphone and (I think) interrupting some speaker to pipe in "WE ARE NOT VICTIMS!"

Unknown said...

hi ed,

this issue of using the word victim to describe and define people with aids really never goes away. what really surprised me here is that it was a huge and smart NGO, the human rights watch, that used 'aids victims' in a release. HRW, of all groups, should know better.

thanks for the reminder and calling out the name of the late and fab michael hirsch. we owe it to him and mike callen, and so many others, to raise objections when 'aids victims' is used to talk about PWAs.