GWEN IFILL: Next, advocates from around the globe are in Washington this week for the 19th International AIDS Conference. This year’s keynote speaker was musician, songwriter, and performer Sir Elton John, whose 20-year-old foundation has raised more than $275 million to fight the disease.
In his speech and in his new book, “Love Is the Cure,” Sir Elton told the story of how Ryan White, the young Indiana boy who contracted HIV through a blood transfusion, inspired him to create the foundation. White’s death in 1990 also spurred passage of the Ryan White Care Act, the nation’s largest domestic program for people living with HIV/AIDS.
I sat down with Sir Elton this morning after he spoke at the Russell Senate Office Building.
GWEN IFILL: Sir Elton, thank you for joining us.
SIR ELTON JOHN, Musician: It’s a pleasure.
GWEN IFILL: You start your book by writing about how you came to your activism, and I just want to read something that you wrote.
You said you began the ’80s, you lived through the ’80s as a passive bystander to this human calamity that was exploding all around you, that you knew about AIDS, but you had done nothing about it.
SIR ELTON JOHN: I knew about AIDS. My friends were dying right, left, and center. I did a record with Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, and Gladys Knight. I did a couple of benefits.
But apart from that, I wasn’t involved in anything. I wasn’t out — you know, I know I wasn’t in ACT UP. I wasn’t with Larry Kramer. I wasn’t by his side. I wasn’t saying what I should do, because, by all accounts, I was a drug addict and an alcoholic. And I was living in a complete bubble of self-absorption.
GWEN IFILL: So you were someplace else during this period.
SIR ELTON JOHN: Yes.
GWEN IFILL: And Ryan White focused your attention.
SIR ELTON JOHN: Yes. It took a child. It took a child with a blood transfusion not only to wake me up, but to wake America up, basically.
I mean, I read about his plight in a doctor’s office in New York in a magazine. I was so outraged about it that I contacted the family. We became friends. I helped them move to another place in Indiana. And we became constant friends.
And I spent the last week of Ryan’s life in Indiana, Indianapolis, with Jeanne and Andrea, Jeanne, his mother, Andrea, his sister, and some other beautiful people who came. And it taught me a lesson.
It — he spoke to me. He spoke to me that my life was out of order. My life was a mess. I had no values anymore. And he was so stoic with his infection. He wasn’t bitter. He wasn’t angry. He just was a kid. He wanted to go to school and play football, drive his car. And he had no bitterness about him.
He had a kind of angelic aura about him. And his family, too, it’s like, they are going through all this suffering, and I’m living this “Life of Riley” and I’m complaining about everything, and they are living this horrific life and complaining about nothing.
GWEN IFILL: Ryan White’s life and death was — you are right, he was angelic, he was accessible once people got to know his story. It seemed typical Midwestern child.
But you write a lot about marginalized people and how they have been the ones who have suffered the most greatly because of AIDS.
SIR ELTON JOHN: Yes. Well, we can’t leave anyone behind just because they are sex workers or they are needle users, intravenous drug users, prostitutes.
You know, no one should be marginalized in society when it comes to health. And, you know, we have — as a foundation, we have tried to champion those people and be by — be by their side and say, listen, these people cannot be forgotten. If you forget about them, then the disease is never going to go away.
GWEN IFILL: How great is the power of stigma in this?
SIR ELTON JOHN: It’s tremendous.
I mean, that’s what I focus on in my book and I focused on my speech yesterday. I can’t talk about — as eloquently as everyone else about a prevention or medicine or, you know, funding, but I can talk about the human element, which is the main part of AIDS, because it comes to the human being and how they are being treated, what medicines they are on and what medicines they are not on.
And the stigma hasn’t really changed that much in 31 years. You are still getting people — it’s a shame-based disease. It’s based on sexual transmission. And it’s still shame-based. And until people feel strong enough and feel loved enough to actually open up and say, listen, I’m HIV-positive, then we are facing an uphill battle.
You know, it’s a very treatable disease. You shouldn’t feel ashamed. But I’m afraid that’s carried on very much so from the first days of AIDS, when it was basically a gay disease. And then, of course, you know, it affected everybody.
But until we get rid of that shame, then people are going to stay underground, they are not going to get tested, and we’re facing an uphill battle.
GWEN IFILL: You first started the Elton John AIDS Foundation 20 years ago?
SIR ELTON JOHN: Twenty years ago, yes.
GWEN IFILL: And you came to Washington — you write about it — some years ago, and met President George W. Bush for the first time. And he did not live down to your expectations.
SIR ELTON JOHN: He…
SIR ELTON JOHN: He lived up — well, he was someone that I wouldn’t have voted for. His policies were not mine.
But we came for the Kennedy Center Awards, which was an incredible honor. Being a British person, I was bestowed this honor. And my partner and I, David, came. And we were so pleasantly surprised by George Bush and his knowledge of AIDS. He really — he treated David and I — and Laura — treated us like — they were so friendly and so courteous.
And he was passionate about AIDS. And we had a 10-minute talk at the interval of a concert at the Kennedy Center about AIDS. And I was astonished about how well-informed he was and his commitment to AIDS. And so it’s the typical thing of don’t judge a book by its cover until you have read the book.
GWEN IFILL: You are here in Washington at this International AIDS Conference, and you are also meeting people here on Capitol Hill about what they can do and what they can continue to do.
Do you find that government intervention is in the end more of a help or a hindrance, not only in the U.S., but worldwide?
SIR ELTON JOHN: Well, it is certainly a help in America, because I came in 10 years ago lobbying for money to President — to Senators Orrin Hatch and Edward Kennedy, and we were begging for money to stop this epidemic becoming a global pandemic, which it was.
But we — and they listened to us. And I’m here 10 years later, and I have just been at a breakfast meeting, as you were, and listened to the most wonderful speeches. We have come so far. It’s become a real bipartisan cause, which I’m very happy to see. And in the case of America, and it’s — certainly, without America, we’d be facing catastrophe.
GWEN IFILL: But so many nations in Africa especially resisted.
SIR ELTON JOHN: They resisted for a long time.
And now South Africa has finally woken up and it is doing great things. And if South Africa becomes the template to what AIDS is in the sub-Saharan continent, then all the other countries are going to follow suit. And Michel Sidibe, who spoke at the breakfast meeting this morning, was saying that there is so much hope for Africa now that South Africa has got its house in order.
When President Mbeki said, if you get AIDS, you can have a shower and it goes away. It’s like, oh, come on. Or it’s caused by poverty. We faced those kind of issues. But now, with the new regime, they have really woken up, paid attention. And when South Africa speaks, then the whole of Africa will listen. And I have got great hopes for that.
GWEN IFILL: But you have harsh words in your book for pharmaceutical companies.
SIR ELTON JOHN: Yes, of course. They’re just making a killing out of people’s death.
And they’re benefiting by people’s suffering. And I find that obscene. I find it ridiculous in this day and age, that that would happen. And it took President Clinton to go to rogue pharmaceutical companies to copy the antiretroviral drugs for a fraction of the cost.
And these companies are still threatening to sue. And it’s like, you know, do you not have a conscience? Do you not want the world to be a better place? You’re still making a profit. How much more of a profit do you want to make?
GWEN IFILL: You mentioned Michel Sidibe, who we talked to on the program last week about this, and he’s very optimistic about where we stand now and the fight against AIDS globally.
Are — do you share that optimism?
SIR ELTON JOHN: Of course.
Twenty years ago, when we started, I was delivering meals to people in Atlanta. We were a direct-care organization. And it was — people needed meals, they needed transport, they needed medication, they needed buddy systems. They had a death sentence.
There was AZT, and that was just prolonging the agony, basically. Now people, of course, if they are on antiretrovirals, they face a lifetime of health, basically. I mean, it doesn’t — it’s I would say in the 99 percent certainty bracket that if you are on that medication, you will have a healthy life.
And we have come so far like that. I mean, the advances on the medication side have been enormous, and the advances on the human side have been enormous. But we still have this stigma to get rid of, and then we really will be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
GWEN IFILL: Sir Elton John, thank you so much for talking with us.
SIR ELTON JOHN: Thank you.
GWEN IFILL: I asked Elton John a few more questions about his music and his famous fashion sense. You can find that our website.