Really Want to End the Epidemic? Look to America’s LGBTQ Elected Officials

LGBTQ Leaders React to President Trump’s HIV/AIDS #SOTU Announcement

“My budget will ask Democrats and Republicans to make the need commitment to eliminate the HIV epidemic in the United States within 10 years.” Could it be possible? The President’s announcement came with few details, and LGBTQ elected officials were quick to respond:

New York Council Speaker Corey Johnson, the highest-ranking person living with HIV in the U.S., pressed the President for details, and wrote,

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) tweeted that federal HIV prevention dollars had already been diverted to detain migrant children on the southern border:

“President Trump may promise to stop new HIV infections, but his policies do exactly the opposite,” he added. “As a gay man, I find his empty rhetoric insulting. More than 1 million Americans are living with HIV and 700,000+ have died. These Americans and their families deserve better.”

Leading advocacy groups share the skepticism, including Housing Works’ CEO Charles King:

“We have the tools to end the epidemic in the U.S. We can reach our goal by 2025 if we act boldly, but we won’t even reach the goal by 2030 if the Trump Administration continues to create barriers by attacking the Affordable Care Act, human rights, sexual and reproductive rights, and the communities most impacted by the epidemic.”
(Download Housing Works’ policy guidelines, “Ending the HIV Epidemic in the U.S.: A Roadmap for Federal Action”)

Leading on Policy Solutions

Time will tell how serious the White House is about HIV eradication, but there’s no better place to look for inspiration than America’s LGBTQ elected officials. This network’s record of accomplishment on both prevention and HIV decriminalization reflects the bold action and holistic solutions we need to fund what works, allocate resources where they’re needed, and address the medical and structural drivers of the epidemic. For example:

  • In 2014, Iowa state Sen. Matt McCoy led the charge for HIV criminalization reform, making Iowa the first of 34 states with outdated and unjust legislation to pass reforms. “This is medieval and it goes back to treating HIV as if it were leprosy and basically we need to repeal these laws,” McCoy told CNN. “They are draconian and they are outdated and we know so much more about the disease.”
  • In 2017, California Asm. Todd Gloria and state Sen. Scott Weiner sponsored a bill modernizing California HIV Laws to decriminalize HIV-positive status and reduce the penalty for intentionally exposing a person to HIV from felony to misdemeanor. (And they’re set to spearhead this work again. In January 2019, Weiner and Gloria introduced a bill to expand access to PrEP by allowing pharmacists to offer PrEp over the counter and prohibit insurance plans from requiring prior authorization.)
  • In 2017, Georgia state Rep. Park. Cannon sponsored a bill to require health service providers to require advertising PrEP as a preventative medication. In 2018, Rep. Cannon joined Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ LGBTQ advisory council where she successfully lobbied for $100,000 in prevention programs. This work is particularly crucial as the Southern U.S. is home to half of all undiagnosed infections.

“People always say to me oh it doesn’t matter that you’re part of the LGBTQ community, but in fact we are looking at our HIV diagnosis skyrocketing in the city of Atlanta,” she said. “We must have targeted focus groups that include people living with HIV and making sure that they are at the solutions table.”

3 people, people smiling, at center is Georgia state Rep Park Cannon

And in 2018 alone:

  • Sen. Tammy Baldwin secured $14 million in funding for HIV/AIDS prevention programs as part of the Ryan White Act.

  • Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy sued health insurers for denying coverage to individuals with a history of taking PrEP, primarily gay men, with immediate results.
  • In March, Out lawmakers Pennsylvania state Rep. Brian Sims, Florida state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, and former New York state Sen. Thomas Duane were honored at the 25th annual AIDSWatch lobbying day; Duane for his lifetime of work and visibility as a positive lawmaker, Sims for his work to mandate the insurers provide equal access to PrEP; and Guillermo-Smith for his role negotiating PrEP benefits for Publix employees.
  • In December, 150+ LGBTQ elected officials signed a letter to the 116th Congress calling to create a Congressional Advisory Commission on HIV/AIDS with the goal of getting to zero new infections, and to address the “the continuing disparities in HIV diagnoses and treatment in communities of color.”

Just to name a few.

Undetectable ≠ Unelectable

This National Black HIV Awareness Day, we’re reminded HIV remains a grave taboo for politicians and their constituents alike.

People living with HIV are rarely elected, and it’s the exclusive domain of white men. The pioneering visibility of figures like Tom Duane and Corey Johnson in New York, and John D’Amico and John Duran in West Hollywood, has yet to be extended to other groups. An out HIV-positive woman, person of color, or transgender candidate has never won a seat.

It’s no surprise HIV remains a political third rail – the CDC only admitted that “Undetectable equals Untransmittable” in October 2017!  And only about half of HIV-positive people in the U.S. are on PrEP, with gay and bisexual men and people of color at the highest risk; According to the Williams Institute, Black gay and bisexual men are four times more likely than White gay and bisexual men to be tested for HIV every year.

But LGBTQ leaders are working to raise awareness of the progress we’ve made – that it’s no longer a death sentence or hindrance to effective policymaking. For example, today, Pennsylvania state Rep. Brian Sims released video of an HIV test to encourage constituents and supporters to get tested and to do it often.

“We’ve progressed so much that it’s just down to an oral swab,” he said. “My results are personal, but you can go anywhere in the state – public health centers, hospitals, Planned Parenthoods, there are places all across this state to find out your status.”




Elected Officials, Research