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Tennessee To Only Prevent/Treat HIV/AIDS In *Nice* People, Not Those Sinners
We woke up and it was 1986 again.
The far Right's panic mongering against trans people will soon have a larger body count, since apparently stochastic terrorism hasn't killed enough people yet. In January, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) announced he would reject federal funding for HIV testing, prevention, and treatment, complaining that the federal money came with too many strings attached. By that, he meant that the grants from the US Centers for Disease control specify that the money be used for the populations most at risk for HIV: men who have sex with men, trans folks, and intravenous drug users. Lee's announcement was especially bizarre since Tennessee is currently experiencing one of the nation's worst HIV epidemics.
But going way back to the earliest days of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, Republicans have never liked preventing a deadly disease that affects people they think are icky, so Lee announced that instead of accepting the federal funds that have to go to those who are actually at highest risk, Tennessee would instead refocus its HIV prevention efforts on nicer people who aren't actually at much risk, as the Washington Post reported:
State officials said they would continue to support HIV testing and prevention but would focus on first responders, victims of human trafficking, and mothers and children. In contrast, the federal program prioritizes men who have sex with men and transgender people, particularly in communities of color, who are at greatest risk of HIV, according to federal surveillance data.
Lee's decision wasn't simply driven by a desire to stage a 2023 revival of And the Band Played On, although we can't guarantee he wasn't at least a little nostalgic for the days when Ronald Reagan couldn't bring himself to say the word "AIDS" and he and Nancy refused to even acknowledge their good friend Rock Hudson as the disease was killing him.
Nope, as NBC News reports, Lee's administration chose to reject federal HIV funding, including grant programs begun under Donald Trump, largely in reaction to a campaign of anti-trans panic orchestrated last fall by rightwing "Christian" creep Matt Walsh and his Daily Wire boss Ben Shapiro. The two must be simply over the moon at the prospect that the funding cuts will leave more LGBTQ+ people undiagnosed and vulnerable to what's still a dangerous but treatable disease. Like, if anyone's there to provide the testing and treatment.
NBC News summarizes the fearmongering thusly:
A leading voice in the right’s opposition to the treatment of gender dysphoria in minors, Matt Walsh, a columnist for the conservative media outlet Daily Wire, published a series of widely read tweets on Sept. 20 targeting Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s treatment of minors at its Transgender Health Clinic. “They now castrate, sterilize, and mutilate minors as well as adults,” Walsh said.
The next day, Walsh appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show to publicize his investigation, and Ben Shapiro, a conservative commentator who co-founded Daily Wire, further amplified Walsh’s attacks on Vanderbilt on his YouTube channel and podcast, decrying the “nonsense garbage that a boy can be a girl and a girl can be a boy.”
It's bullshit, but it got Lee's attention, and he echoed the claims, calling for a "thorough investigation" into gender-affirming care, and adding in the weird claim that "religious liberties" were somehow being crushed by the existence of trans people.
While it's long been clear that Lee's decision was in part prompted by the panic stirred up by Walsh's trans-panic lies, NBC News spoke to four sources within the Tennessee Health Department who confirmed that the state government was making decisions connected to Walsh's frothing lies about Vanderbilt Children's Hospital, Planned Parenthood, and the state's Transgender Task Force, accusing them of all sorts of horrors.
In October, the pressure wound its way to the unit that combats HIV, sexually transmitted infections and viral hepatitis at the Tennessee Health Department.
On Oct. 24, the unit’s director, Dr. Pamela Talley, told employees that because of the social media firestorm over Vanderbilt, information about the Tennessee Transgender Task Force — a volunteer team the unit established in 2018 to focus on trans health and HIV prevention — and other trans resources had been scrubbed from the department’s website. That is according to two staffers present, who, like two of their colleagues, spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
In November, staff were told that federal funding for the Transgender Task Force, and for Planned Parenthood's HIV-prevention efforts, which mostly involved education and condom distribution, would be terminated at the end of 2022.
“There were at least three different levels of leadership on the call,” a staffer said. “It was discussed that there had been media attention around the Vanderbilt trans health clinic, which led those reporters to learn about the trans task force, and that they were funded by [the state Health Department] HIV prevention program and that all HIV prevention contracts were being reviewed.”
Then in January, Lee's administration announced it would reject the entire $8.3 million in two grant programs from the CDC for HIV prevention, treatment, and surveillance, so that was that. $6.2 million had been allocated for statewide prevention and monitoring efforts, and another $2.1 million was specifically for Shelby County, which includes Memphis; the county has among the highest HIV infection rates in the country.
Lee's administration claimed the state would provide an equal amount of funding, but also that the focus would shift to nice wholesome people, wink-wink nudge-nudge. As NBC reports,
Currently, the priority populations for the CDC grant for Shelby County, for example, include LGBTQ people, sex workers and those who inject drugs, are unhoused or are formerly incarcerated.
Lee’s press officer, Jade Byers, said in an email that the administration “is committed to maintaining the same level of funding, while more efficiently and effectively serving vulnerable populations, such as victims of human trafficking, mothers and children, and first responders.”
Hey, remember how Ryan White, the little kid who was infected by his hemophilia treatments, made it finally OK for powerful straight people to say maybe AIDS was a problem? This is kind of like that, except Tennessee is saying it will only help the Ryan Whites and not all those bad people.
As Greg Millett, director of public policy at The Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) pointed out, promising to help people at far lower risk is a pretty bad way to fight an epidemic.
"Tennessee is preferring to fight a fictitious epidemic rather than their very real HIV epidemic. [...] First responders are just not at risk for HIV anywhere in the United States. Sexual trafficking is awful, but it’s not a major contributor for HIV cases in Tennessee or elsewhere.”
NBC News also notes that between 2016 and 2020, only one to six babies annually were born with HIV in Tennessee. So really, no need to spend millions on them.
Oh, there's also the tiny matter of the people who actually are at risk for HIV infection, but who don't need to be considered because they're filthy sinners:
More than half of new diagnoses in Tennessee were in men who have sex with men in 2019, according to the state Health Department’s surveillance reports . And in 2016, the CDC released a report warning that 220 of the country’s counties, including 41 in Tennessee, were at high risk of HIV and hepatitis C outbreaks among people who inject drugs (that population accounted for 5% of new Tennessee HIV diagnoses in 2019).
And while overall HIV cases have been declining nationwide, new infection rates have been stable or increasing "in most Southern states, where the bulk of transmissions occur ." Just not among first responders, apparently.
In conclusion, we're in hell and a lot of people are making a lot of money making things worse, the end.
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