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Panel choice aids gay plague { January 23 2003 }

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AIDS Panel Choice Wrote of a 'Gay Plague'
Views of White House Commission Nominee Draw Criticism

By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 23, 2003; Page A01

The Bush administration has chosen Jerry Thacker, a Pennsylvania marketing consultant who has characterized AIDS as the "gay plague," to serve on the Presidential Advisory Commission on HIV and AIDS.

Next week, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson is scheduled to swear in several new commission members. They include Thacker, a former Bob Jones University employee, who says he contracted the AIDS virus after his wife was infected through a blood transfusion.

The 35-member commission, which makes recommendations to the White House on AIDS prevention, is the latest incarnation of a panel that has existed since the Reagan administration. Earlier commissions issued reports strongly critical of the national response to AIDS, and helped to nudge the government and the pharmaceutical industry toward greater action.

In his speeches and writings on his Web site and elsewhere, Thacker has described homosexuality as a "deathstyle" rather than a lifestyle and asserted that "Christ can rescue the homosexual." After word of his selection spread among gays in recent days, some material disappeared from the Web site. Earlier versions located by The Washington Post that referred to the "gay plague," for instance, were changed as of yesterday to "plague."

Administration health officials speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed Thacker's appointment. They said he was part of a diverse group that includes a member of the board of directors of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay and lesbian advocacy group; an AIDS adviser to the World Bank; and a state public health officer.

Thacker, one official said, "has a very powerful and tragic personal story and an ability to reach out to an audience we couldn't reach in the process."

Thacker's assistant said yesterday he would not speak to reporters until he is sworn in. HHS spokesman Bill Pierce and Patricia Ware, executive director of the commission, declined to comment publicly.

"This individual is an extremist ideologue who persecutes and demeans an entire class of people impacted by this disease," said David Smith, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign. "That type of person has no business advising the president of the United States on how the government should address the epidemic."

Carl Schmid, a Republican gay activist who worked on President Bush's 2000 campaign, said he is disappointed and frustrated that HHS disregarded warnings that Thacker's selection would overshadow the commission's valuable work.

"We need to have a scientific-based approach to the problems of HIV-AIDS and not this radical agenda he's pushing," Schmid said. Aside from the harshly anti-gay tone of Thacker's rhetoric, Schmid said, his major objection to Thacker is his aggressive lobbying for abstinence-until-marriage education.

"Abstinence-until-marriage does not help anyone in the gay community, because we can't get married," he said. "If you are a gay youth, who is addressing your concerns?"

Thacker's biography on the Web site of the Scepter Institute, a nonprofit organization that sells religious-based AIDS material, indicates he is a Bob Jones University graduate and was a "member of the university faculty for seven years." Bush caused a stir in the 2000 presidential campaign when he spoke at the South Carolina university, which until recently banned interracial dating and has been accused of anti-Catholic attitudes.

In September 2001, Thacker returned to his alma mater to give two "Chapel Messages." The speeches, summarized on the university Web site, focused on the "sin of homosexuality" and his family's struggle with AIDS.

"When he and his wife discovered in 1986 that they had contracted HIV, the most horrible thought was that it was a disease connected with the sin of homosexuality," according to the summary. "They didn't want anyone to think they were homosexual because they knew what the Bible said about homosexuality."

Thacker's beliefs on homosexuality are known as "reparative therapy," a philosophy that considers homosexuality aberrant behavior that can be modified through religious faith. Professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association say that approach has no medical or scientific basis.

The Bob Jones summary of Thacker's speeches said: "Homosexuality is not inborn biologically, just as incest and bestiality are not inborn. Studies have show that thousands of homosexuals have been set free from this sin."

University spokesman Jonathan Pait said Thacker was not a professor but ran a radio station at the school. While the university "would not get involved" in the controversy, Pait, who knows Thacker personally, said he is "a man who does have great compassion for those who are suffering from AIDS and HIV."

Thacker's promotional materials stress the need for compassion toward all people with AIDS, and they urge churches to think "Christianly" about people with AIDS and to hate the sin, but love the sinner.

"Be compassionate to those caught up in this sinful deathstyle," the Bob Jones summary said. "Only when homosexuals know it is a sin can they repent."

The commission has several prominent conservatives known for their promotion of abstinence-only programs.

Smith, of the Human Rights Campaign, said that although he does not always agree with the panel, Thacker's views are "more egregiously right-wing" than those of other members, and that the deletions from Thacker's Web site represent "an attempt to make him more palatable."

The commission's co-chairman, Tom Coburn, said he knows little about Thacker except that he is infected with the AIDS virus. Coburn said Thacker's views on homosexuality were irrelevant to the commission's efforts to stop the epidemic.

Co-chairman Louis W. Sullivan, the HHS secretary under President George H.W. Bush, said he only recently became aware of "the Thacker controversy" and wanted to speak to him before commenting.

"Clearly, this is a virus that affects our general population," he added. "It is clearly not something that is only an issue for the gay community. It is an issue for the heterosexual community."

Researcher Karl Evanzz contributed to this story.

2003 The Washington Post Company

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