Dr. Joycelyn Elders served as the first African-American U.S. surgeon general during the Clinton administration. At a 1994 United Nations conference on AIDS, she was asked about promoting masturbation to prevent young people from engaging in riskier sexual activity. "I think that it is part of human sexuality," Elders replied, "And perhaps it should be taught." She was forced to resign. Elders, 75, continues to address sexual health and education on the lecture circuit. ESSENCE.COM talked to the retired professor about her advice for President Obama's nominee for surgeon general and the battle over health care reform.
Dr. Joycelyn Elders appears at her confirmation hearings for the office of U.S. surgeon general in 1993.
(ESSENCE) -- ESSENCE.COM: When you were surgeon general, you were outspoken on controversial issues like distributing contraception in high schools and talking about drug legalization. What advice would you give to Dr. Regina Benjamin, if she is confirmed, about how to approach those kinds of issues?
DR. JOCELYN ELDERS: How to approach those issues and keep her job? My advice to Dr. Benjamin is to decide on the issues that you want to go out and work and fight for. But also know that, if there are issues that you feel strongly about, you have every former surgeon general out there -- we organize and we talk -- who can address some of those issues for you. If she feels like it's a really controversial thing, she doesn't always have to take it on herself. She can let one of us take it on.
Another thing that's very important is to always use science-based data to speak out against things, even if they're politically incorrect. That's what the office has always stood for. When everything else drills down, people still believe in the surgeon general.
ESSENCE.COM: Do you think the president is being forceful enough about getting Blue Dog Democrats and Republicans to keep a public option in the bill?
ELDERS: This is probably something I shouldn't say, but I'm always saying that anyway, so one more time won't hurt. The president is really out there knocking his brains out trying to get this through, but I feel he is taking too much of the lead.
He should allow other people in his administration to be out here running from place to place, doing town hall meetings and all of this other stuff. When it gets down to the final bill and shaping it into what you want it to be, then let the president come in to do the heavy lifting. We've got the president out there doing heavy lifting before anyone else. Essence: Cambridge mayor on teaching a lesson on race
ESSENCE.COM: Regarding your comment about masturbation at the 1994 UN Conference on AIDS, if you could do it over would you do it differently?
ELDERS: No. That's probably one of the best things I did for this country. I allowed us to talk about sexuality more openly and honestly. We are sexual beings, from birth to death, and we never feel that we can talk about sexual health. You can't be a healthy, well-adjusted human being without a healthy sexuality.
ESSENCE.COM: When you were surgeon general, you also advocated for universal health care. How do you feel about the current debate on health insurance reform?
ELDERS: We debate health insurance reform every time we get a new president. Obviously this is something we should have done 50 or 60 years ago. We wouldn't be in the mess we're in now had we done that. Watch Obama's ex-doctor critical of health plan »
But we can't have a healthy nation with ignorant people. We've got to educate our population on how to be healthy and make them understand that they can do more to improve their own health than all the doctors in the world. If we want to reduce the cost of healthcare, we've got to prevent disease and do what we need to do to keep people healthy and well. Esssence: Sonia Sotomayor: A wise Latina
ESSENCE.COM: Do you see yourself as a trailblazer?
ELDERS: I don't necessarily see myself as a trailblazer. I think I was saying things that many people thought but didn't say. AIDS was a political football for a long while, and now we are much more into prevention.
But then, people are embarrassed to buy condoms and vaginal contraceptive films. Parents don't talk about it. Society doesn't talk about it. We can't talk about it on TV because the kids might learn about it. It just makes no sense what we do. I think that as we learn more, we will be less embarrassed about our own sexual health. And that should still be a big part of the agenda.
Just think of how much teenage pregnancy costs. The most common cause of poverty in this country is unplanned pregnancy. People come up to me all the time and say, "Dr. Elders, you were right. Too bad we didn't listen to you."
ESSENCE.COM: At the time that you were asked to resign, with all the media attention, what was that like? What were you feeling and thinking at the time?
ELDERS: It happened so very quickly. I really wasn't expecting it. I was told at 8 or 9 in the morning that they wanted my resignation on [White House Chief of Staff] Mr. Panetta's desk by 2 o'clock in the afternoon. I spoke to Bill Clinton, and I think he understood what I was talking about. I was his director at the Arkansas Department of Health for six years, and I had said nothing different or new. But there's a difference between being a governor of a small state and being the president of the United States. Essence: Will new green jobs go to black people?
But the best thing that ever happened to me was getting fired. I've been able to go across the country and meet a lot of people I would have never met otherwise. I went back to the University of Arkansas and was on the faculty, and I've had fun since I left Washington. And I never worried about what I was going to say anyway.
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