Red Ribbons and Gold Ribbons

Elton John AIDS Foundation continues legacy of hope. An interview with Sir Elton John.

By Mark Segal, Gay History Project 

Elton andDavid
Elton John and David Furnish

Elton John’s friendship with young Ryan White, who succumbed to AIDS in 1990, was only the beginning. Eighteen World AIDS Days later, the Elton John AIDS Foundation has raised more than $150 million to support the urgently needed programs throughout the United States and in 55 countries around the globe.

Mark Segal: Part of your history is the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Each year you tour a country where EJAF has programs. What are your most memorable thoughts from those trips?
Elton John: For the past few years, my partner David Furnish and I, along with friends and colleagues from the Elton John AIDS Foundation, have gone to South Africa every January. And, as you say, we make a point to visit projects and organizations that are supported by EJAF. These annual trips have become not only an activity to which I look forward, but in fact give me much energy at the beginning of each year. I am always overwhelmed by the hopeful spirit that surrounds all the people with whom we come in contact—and these are people whose lives have been ravaged on so many levels by HIV/AIDS. They are children whose parents have died from AIDS. They are heads of households at 10. They are wives whose husbands have died. The stories go on and on, and yet they carry on with such hope and dignity. It is a true inspiration and is something that helps focus my energy to continue to raise money for the Elton John AIDS Foundation to support such work all around the world. 

Last year, I also traveled to the Ukraine where EJAF supports a number of projects. In fact, during the summer of 2007 I played an outdoor concert in Kiev to raise money and awareness for our work and HIV/AIDS in general. It was so gratifying and energizing to play before such enormous and enthusiastic crowds. Earlier this year, David traveled to India with EJAF staff and other board members to view projects we support there. David and I are very proud of the work that we are supporting in that country. This year, we look forward to traveling to Cambodia to visit projects in that country.

Madonna in Malawi, with children orphened by AIDS.

Are there any new projects in the pipeline for EJAF?
Well, I am happy to report that since 2005, EJAF has met with ever greater fundraising success and has increased its grant-making here in the U.S. by 140 percent. We have expanded not only the amount of money given but also strategically targeted key regions and populations that are poorly served by current prevention efforts and most at risk of infection, including critically under-funded communities of the Southern United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America; highly marginalized populations such as injection drug users, men who have sex with men, and incarcerated individuals; and underserved populations such as African Americans and young people.

To use a specific example, many of the grants that EJAF has made over the last couple of years reinforce and enhance our commitment to HIV/AIDS awareness-raising, prevention, and treatment access programs in the Caribbean, the second-most HIV/AIDS affected region in the world after sub-Saharan Africa. In 2007 alone, 17,000 people in the Caribbean were newly infected with the virus, and as many as 230,000 Caribbean residents are currently living with HIV. It is also a region where there is tremendous stigma around HIV/AIDS. 

In 2007, EJAF invested more than $1.6 million in grants to this region and nearly $1.4 million so far in 2008, addressing the specific challenges of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on a variety of levels. To ameliorate prejudices and reduce stigma faced by people with HIV/AIDS, EJAF partnered with the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Ford Foundation to help establish the Caribbean Broadcast Media Partnership on HIV/AIDS (CBMP). Since its launch in May 2006, the CBMP has grown to include more than 80 leading broadcasters from 25 Caribbean countries and territories across the region, in an unprecedented collaboration to develop a coordinated media response to AIDS. CBMP broadcast members have made HIV/AIDS a business priority, and they air HIV content across all programming genres, delivering important messages about tolerance and  HIV prevention to an estimated audience of some 40 million people. With the new grant just awarded in early September, the CBMP will be expanding its efforts into Haiti, the country most affected by HIV/AIDS in the Western Hemisphere. 

So, I am very pleased that EJAF can not only maintain its commitments to funding projects at the front lines here in the U.S., but can also expand to areas in desperate need such as the Caribbean region.

If I’d ask someone from the U.S. about gay history, they most likely would mention the Stonewall riots in 1969. Many in Britain might think of Oscar Wilde’s trials in 1895. When I say gay history, what comes to your mind?
For me, I would have to say that when I think of gay history I immediately think of my own civil partnership with my partner David. When civil partnerships became possible in the United Kingdom, it was very important for David and I to be able to do this on the first day it was possible. I really felt part of something genuinely progressive and groundbreaking, and we were also so totally overwhelmed and heartened by the positive support we received across the board from the press, my fans, the people of Great Britain and literally the world over!

Part of our struggle is the right for equality. You stood up for equality when you and David married in Windsor. Any advice for those battling in California for that right?
I would say that ultimately we should not be deterred by those who do not want us to gain equal footing in society. The path to that day of victory will not be easy, and there will be those individuals who will try and stand in the way of progress. But, I feel that over time the ideals of equality for gay men and women—in this case, to marry—will prevail. So, don’t lose sight of what is right.

On a light note, how does it feel to be a married man?
Wonderful! As I said, David and I deliberately chose to have our civil partnership on the very first day that this became legal and possible in Great Britain; however, after all the excitement died down, we both felt incredibly content and secure in the knowledge that mainstream British society now supported our relationship.

Mark Segal is publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News and in 2005 produced Philadelphia’s official July 4th concert which starred Sir Elton John, Pattie LaBelle, and Bryan Adams and raised $1,000,000 for the EJAF and $100,000 for local HIV/AIDS organizations.


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