Here To Inspire

Rep. Jerrold Nadler: The Optimistic Fighter

Representing iconic gay-heavy neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Manhattan, Congressman Jerrold Nadler was an early proponent of gay rights and fighting HIV.

BY Michelle Garcia

December 01 2011 12:28 AM ET

JerroldNadlerx390 (House) | What do you think is the biggest social advance to have an impact on the way people view HIV?
I think for a long time, there was panic and fear. People didn't understand how it was transmitted, so that made them basically afraid. I wasn't there yet, but Congress passed a law that people with AIDS couldn't immigrate into this country. There was just hysteria. But we now understand how it's transmitted, so that hysteria is gone. AIDS is no longer a death sentence. It's a chronic disease, it's very time-consuming, it's bothersome, and it can be expensive to deal with, but you can live with it.  In one sense, that has produced a complacency among many, but the fact that there's no hysteria about transmission is very important.

How was HIV addressed by New York lawmakers when it was first identified?
When I was in the state Assembly, I got the first round of AIDS funding in 1982. Back in the mid '80s, I was part of the consumer affairs committee, so I took on the pharmaceutical companies that were making it difficult to access drugs. AZT was the only drug that had an effect on AIDS at that time, but it was too expensive for most people to get. So we got the price reduced by 20%-25%. Early on, funeral parlors discriminated against AIDS victims, so we passed a law and stopped that.

New York City has a lot of great local support for people with HIV — are there any particular local efforts that you think would also translate on a national level?
We've had several suggestions over the years, but the three things that have really effectively developed have been protecting housing for people with HIV, the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, and the Ryan White CARE Act. The basic problem is lack of funding. I've been among the leaders on these issues, and we've succeeded somewhat. And I must say [President Barack] Obama was very good on that. The problem is that we have a Republican House that is trying to cut back on everything, including this.

Speaking of cuts, ADAP is being cut across the country right now. Is there any possibility that those who are on waiting lists might see some congressional action to help reduce the numbers on the list?
I don't know, with a Republican House. I'm somewhat pessimistic, but we have to fight it, and we have to expand its funding. Although, in another year, we could have a completely different outlook on things.

It's the basic way these things go. In 1994, Newt Gingrich was the new speaker of the House. After that Contract With America, one of the things they wanted to do was kill funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. There was a big fight, and we ended up passing a bill saying we're going to have a one-third cut this year, the following year, and then the last third the year after that. I said, "This is a great victory." Everyone thought I was crazy, but a couple of years later, the Republicans were out, and we ended up saving the program. It's still being funded. So after the next election, we'll live to fight another day. We survived.