March 26, 2020 at 7:46 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Dr. Birx faces call to affirm LGBTQ people won’t face bias in coronavirus relief
Deborah Birx
Dr. Deborah Birx is facing a call to affirm LGBTQ people won’t face bias in coronavirus relief. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Amid concerns a lack of federal protections leaves LGBTQ people open to discrimination, a group of 87 House Democrats are calling on Dr. Deborah Birx to affirm anti-LGBTQ discrimination will be prohibited in coronavirus relief efforts.

The March 26 letter, coordinated by Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas) and the LGBTQ Equality Caucus, draws on the assertion LGBTQ people are disproportionately vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“We call on you to keep these considerations in mind as you develop solutions and we ask you to be proactive by publicly asserting that any programs or initiatives that assist the American people during this crisis must be conducted without discrimination against any community, including the LGBTQ community, and that there are no grounds by which this type of discrimination is acceptable,” the letter says.

LGBTQ people are disproportionately vulnerable to the coronavirus, the letter says, because that have high reported rates of discrimination in the health care system; have greater rates of smoking, cancer and depression; and are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS, which can depress immune systems and make patients vulnerable to disease. 

Older people are vulnerable to the coronavirus, and LGBTQ elders even more so, the letter says, because they “grew up in an era where asserting an LGBTQ identity was difficult to impossible” and now have limited social support.

Birx, named the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, has become a rising star as result of her diplomatic approach to answering questions during the daily White House briefings on the pandemic.

As the House Democrats’ letter notes, Birx also has a history in fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Since 2014, she has served as ambassador-at-large and U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator since 2014, which makes her responsible for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR.

“Based on your many years of service in the fight against HIV/AIDS, we take comfort knowing that you are in this leadership position and have been, and will continue to be, an ally to the LGBTQ community,” the letter states.

Birx has compared the coronavirus pandemic to the fight against HIV/AIDS in the early days of the epidemic during a White House briefing in the Rose Garden earlier this month.

“We had another silent epidemic: HIV,” Birx said. “And I just want to recognize the HIV epidemic was solved by the community: the HIV advocates, and activists who stood up when no one was listening and got everyone’s attention. We’re asking that same sense of community to come together and stand up against this virus.”

House Democrats write the letter in the aftermath of the Trump administration declaring it will refuse to enforce an Obama-era rule barring anti-LGBTQ discrimination among federal grantees, such as taxpayer-funded adoption agencies and medical care providers. The Department of Health & Human Services had implemented the rule in December 2016 just before Obama left the White House and Trump took office.

Faced with calls to lift the rule from religious-affiliated non-profits, including Catholic Social Services, the Trump administration announced late last year it would not only the start the rule-making process to lift the regulation, but cease enforcing it immediately.

Earlier this month, a trio of LGBTQ legal advocacy groups filed a lawsuit against the decision to stop enforcing the rule in court, citing the discrimination LGBTQ people may face in social services, such as meals on wheels, without the implementation of the rule.

Although House Democrats don’t explicitly mention the rule or the lawsuit, they cite many of the same concerns expressed in the lawsuit against the Trump administration.

“For every community impacted by coronavirus, you will often see ways in which the LGBTQ populations within those communities face harsh realities,” the letter says. “Young people whose colleges are closing may not have supportive families who will take them in. LGBTQ people who lose their jobs may have a harder time finding new work based on pre-existing patterns of discrimination against LGBTQ job-seekers. Those LGBTQ people in prison or who are navigating the immigration system already face unique challenges, including vulnerability to violence, which can be made worse during a crisis such as this.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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