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Texas Christians attack AIDS prevention drugs

Universal at-risk access means an end to the epidemic

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(Photo by Bowonpat/Bigstock)

Isn’t it weird that conservative Christians once were the main obstacle to fighting AIDS? Remember how Jesus healed the sick without moral judgment? How he exhorted his followers to love all people as neighbors, even the hated Romans and Samaritans? I learned that in Sunday school as a conservative Christian child, which made my years fighting AIDS in Act Up feel weird and dissonant.

You’d think followers of Jesus would have united to push for treatment and prevention, but that’s the opposite of what happened.

While my friends and family were dying in staggering numbers, the people fighting the hardest against treatment and prevention were ALWAYS conservative Christians — Roman Catholic priests and Evangelical leaders preaching moral condemnation of queer people. They preached that if we just stopped “sinning” we’d be fine, so society shouldn’t waste a penny on us.

As reported in the Los Angeles Blade, Federal District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled in favor of Braidwood Management, a Texas business that describes itself as Christian and claims the “right” not to “pay for homosexuality.”

Braidwood Management challenged a provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA/Obama Care) that requires employer health insurance policies to cover PrEP, an anti-HIV drug formulation that prevents HIV infection (the virus that causes AIDS) at a rate close to 100%.

Braidwood and their lawyer claim that since Christians do not commit homosexual acts or take IV drugs, Christians are not at risk for AIDS. Therefore, Braidwood should not have to spend money to cover HIV prevention.

O’Connor handed down three specific findings to support his ruling, one of which directly affirms Braidwood’s argument that their religious liberty has been infringed, that Braidwood has a religious right not to pay for treatment that prevents AIDS.

According to the American Medical Association (AMA), the ruling could eventually gut routine healthcare prevention coverage across the board in the U.S.

I have decades of experience in AIDS prevention education, so let me give you a basic overview of the pandemic. Please feel free to skip down to the next section if you don’t need a primer.

AIDS, which used to be almost 100% lethal, first came to the attention of doctors in the early 1980s. AIDS is caused by HIV, a virus we now know started circulating in the U.S. by as early as the early ’60s and certainly by the mid ’70s.

Before effective treatment became possible in about 1996, nearly three quarters of a million Americans died, most of them gay or bisexual men who contracted HIV through sex with other men. Meanwhile in Africa, HIV slowly infected a staggering proportion of the continent’s population, as many as one in five adults in some regions of southern Africa, where transmission was and remains primarily heterosexual.

No vaccine exists to prevent HIV infection, and while several are in early safety trials, experts do not think we’ll have one in the near future. The most promising vaccines being tested offer something like a 40% efficacy rate, so even if approved, a vaccine will be a very useful prevention tool, not a silver bullet.

But anti-retroviral drugs like PrEP ALREADY offer something like a silver bullet. Treatment and prevention drugs are tools that let us strangle HIV circulation and end the pandemic without a vaccine.

The consensus U.S. (and Canadian/European/UK/Australian) public health strategy for ending the epidemic is combination drug treatment:

Treatment to nearly eliminate the possibility of transmitting HIV among the 1.2m Americans already positive, and …

PrEP to nearly eliminate the possibility of contracting HIV among at-risk people.

The U.S. CDC announced in 2019 a goal to effectively end the HIV epidemic in the U.S. by 2030. We’re well on our way to meeting that goal, but PrEP is an essential part of the plan. Without PrEP, the plan fails.

Unlike all other industrialized nations, the U.S. lacks a healthcare network guaranteeing treatment to all. We make due with a patchwork “system” of private-employer and government programs (like Medicare/Medicaid) that leave many vulnerable people out in the cold.

This is one reason HIV still circulates today. Antiretrovirals can stop HIV transmission is its tracks, so among people who can afford routine healthcare, HIV is a rare phenomenon, even among traditionally high-risk people like gay men.

Stubborn pockets of transmission are concentrated in rural states, primarily in the south, especially among Black people. Public health experts cite lack of routine health care as the number one reason. If you can’t see your doctor on the regular, you aren’t being tested, and HIV infection is likely to go unnoticed for years.

If your insurance plan doesn’t cover PrEP to prevent infection, you become more vulnerable still.

Universal at-risk access means an end to the epidemic. Reduced PrEP access equals increased HIV circulation. Plain and simple.

That’s why public health officials in the Trump administration (Yes, you read that right) mandated PrEP coverage in ACA plans. It’s just common sense. Strangling circulation of a lethal virus is a matter of critical national concern.

We’ve been expecting this ruling for some time. The lawsuit was filed by Jonathan Mitchell, former solicitor general of Texas and strident opponent of LGBTQ rights. He’s on the record supporting making gay sex illegal again. He’s the man who crafted the Texas law that allowed private citizens to sue over abortion.

When people talk about “Christian nationalists” and even “Christian Fascists,” they’re talking about Jonathan Mitchell and others who are up front that they wish to legally impose conservative Christian mandates on the entire nation.

Mitchell announced months ago that he would try to stop PrEP insurance coverage because Christians shouldn’t have to “pay for immorality.” When he landed Judge O’Connor, a fierce ACA opponent who consistently rules in favor of Christians discriminating against LGBTQ people, the outcome began to look preordained.

I don’t recognize the religion Jonathan Mitchell and Braidwood Management say they practice. Their argument that Christians should not have to pay for healthcare for their neighbors isn’t just disingenuous. It doesn’t just ignore than many Christians are gay and at risk of HIV. It doesn’t just ensure more people will suffer.

It flies in the face of Christian love and Jesus’s teachings. Jesus did not teach his followers to love and care only for people who shared their beliefs and practices. He taught exactly and completely the opposite.

I’m not a Christian now, but I was raised Baptist, and I can barely understand how the faith of my childhood has twisted into something so hateful.

But I must believe it, because all over the Internet, Christians are shouting with joy over this legal ruling, this ruling to deny life-saving care to vulnerable people .

Jesus wept, as the Bible tells us.

You, dear reader, must do more than weep. Please, no matter how you usually vote, get out to the polls in November. Vote Democrat.

James Finn is a columnist for the Los Angeles Blade, a former Air Force intelligence analyst, and an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY. Reach him at [email protected].

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Trump family had a tough week — may it only be the beginning

Let’s hope he’s headed to prison instead of back to White House

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Donald Trump, Jr., Eric Trump and Donald Trump in happier times in 2016 at the ribbon-cutting of the Washington, D.C. Trump Hotel, now the Waldorf Astoria. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

For the first time I actually think Donald Trump and his family may get what they deserve. They have been screwing the country for so long it seemed no one could get to them. Donald Trump is like a mafia don, with his family, and others like Rudy Giuliani, being his soldiers. Like many mafia don’s we have seen, while not going down for the deaths he caused, he will likely go down for his financial shenanigans.

As reported in the Washington Post, “The legal dangers facing former president Donald Trump rose this week, after the New York attorney general filed a fraud lawsuit that could effectively shutter the Trump Organization and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit allowed federal investigators to continue their probe into classified documents found at Mar-a-Lago.” In addition, “other setbacks for Trump come as at least a half-dozen additional legal efforts proceed against him and his allies. Federal prosecutors have subpoenaed dozens of his former advisers, and many others, as part of a sprawling investigation into efforts to obstruct the transfer of power after the 2020 election. Separately, a Georgia grand jury has been looking at allegations that he tried to obstruct that state’s electoral count by pressuring Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) to ‘find’ enough votes to overturn the election.” 

While the New York State investigation is civil, New York AG Letitia James has referred her findings to the Manhattan DA, to U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, as well as to the IRS, for possible criminal proceedings. Many of us are keeping our fingers crossed one of these many investigations will finally see Donald Trump where he belongs; not in the White House, but as a more permanent resident in other federal housing, a jail cell. 

While it is important to hold Trump and his acolytes accountable for all the legal issues, we must also hold him responsible for the cultural wars he inspired and promoted. We have always known there are racists, homophobes, transphobes, sexists and misogynists in our midst. However, through hard work and many years of progress, we had seemingly reached a time in this country when people who harbored those hideous feelings couldn’t stand openly in the public square and voice them, no less act on them, without repercussions. The four years of Trump’s presidency changed that. What he did through his words and actions gave people tacit permission to spout these thoughts and even to act on them. He did this because people understood he was all of those things himself, and in most instances never really tried to hide it. He openly courted and defended white nationalists and neo-Nazis. He bragged about mistreating women. Because of Trump many members of minority groups including the LGBTQ community, African Americans, Asians and women have actually lost their lives to violence. If not losing their lives, many lost the chance to live their lives openly, freely and in safety. With all his misguided policies, lies and obfuscations, it is the cultural wars he unleashed that will take the longest, maybe decades, to counter.

We once had two relatively sane political parties, both advocating differing policies but both standing up for democracy. They seemed to understand our government was founded on the need for compromise to move forward their particular ideas. I may have disagreed with most Republican policies, and their national platforms, but I knew that if they won the Congress and the presidency, I could still fight another day to have Democrats win the next time and change the direction of the country more to my liking. But either way our democracy was going to stand. Today, if Republicans take over, I am not so sure of that.

Yet for some reason I still have confidence in most of the American people. I believe they will fight for our democracy by voting this November to give the Democrats continued control of Congress. By doing so they will let us continue to work to shore up our democracy and to make progress on issues from climate change, to immigration, updating our tax code, and ensuring no person in our country goes without a roof over their head, food in their stomach, and adequate healthcare. I believe we can defeat both Trump and Trumpism if we can convince enough people the road to a better life for them, their children, and grandchildren, is to reject Trump’s evil and defend our democracy.  

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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Kenyan McDuffie for D.C. Council-at-Large

A voice of reason and progress in city government

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D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5). (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Kenyan McDuffie is a voice of reason, and a voice for progress, on the D.C. Council. He has been a voice for those without one, and for minority communities across the District. 

Kenyan is a fourth-generation Washingtonian raised in a working-class family of six. He attended Shaed Elementary in Edgewood, St. Anthony Grade School in Brookland, and graduated from Woodrow Wilson Jackson-Reed high school, having played varsity basketball. He has been a union member working as a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. His college career began at the University of the District of Columbia, which he continues to strongly support. He transferred and graduated summa cum laude from Howard University with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Community Development and then joined the staff of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. He left there to attend the University of Maryland School of Law, where he was an editor of the law school’s Journal of Race, Religion, Gender and Class. 

After law school he clerked for an associate judge on the 7th Judicial Circuit of Maryland and then became an Assistant State’s Attorney in Prince George’s County. He then joined the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, where, as a trial attorney, he enforced key federal civil rights laws in cases throughout the country. His caseload at the DOJ included defending the civil rights of the mentally ill, nursing home residents, persons with disabilities, and other vulnerable populations.

At that point in his career, Kenyan added community activist to his resume becoming president of his local civic association and taking a job as a policy adviser with the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice. In that position he worked with Council members to shape policy and legislation for the District of Columbia.

In 2012, with this wealth of experience, he was elected to the D.C. Council. At that time Lateefah Williams, president of the Stein Democratic Club, wrote in the Blade, “Kenyan McDuffie is the type of leader that Ward 5 needs. He is intelligent, he has key experience in diverse matters from public safety to public policy, and he is a staunch supporter of the LGBT community. These are some of the reasons the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, D.C.’s largest LGBT political organization, endorsed Kenyan McDuffie for Ward 5 Council.  … and why I personally support Kenyan McDuffie.” Her confidence in Kenyan was well placed. For 10 years he has worked to build coalitions and create solutions, tackling D.C.’s most significant challenges. In his first year on the Council, he was elected to serve as Chairman Pro Tempore (Vice Chair), a position he continues to hold. 

Kenyan is what those of us looking at legislators call a work-horse, not a show-horse. He has put in the work to bring consensus and pass legislation, which he did with sweeping updates to D.C.’s criminal justice laws when he became chair of the Judiciary Committee in 2017. With that committee he oversaw the implementation of D.C.’s police body-worn camera program, including ensuring the public has fair access to the video footage from encounters with officers. 

Kenyan has a view of public safety that includes both a strong MPD, with appropriate community oversight, and recognition of the need to fully fund community organizations working to reduce crime. Kenyan, like the mayor, believes we need to do both of these things, not one or the other. He recently said, “One of my proudest moments on the Council is passing the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results (NEAR) Act. The law takes a holistic approach to preventing crime in the first instance and floods communities disproportionately impacted by violence with resources – including violence interrupters and behavioral and mental health services – in addition to more innovative, data-driven policing.”

For the past five years, Kenyan has chaired the Council’s Business and Economic Development Committee. His focus has been on helping grow the local economy with a stronger focus on supporting small and minority-owned businesses. He fought to put millions of dollars in the Commercial Acquisition Fund to allow socially disadvantaged business owners to apply for grants to purchase commercial properties here in D.C. Kenyan spearheaded an emergency relief package of $100 million to help the hospitality, entertainment, and retail industries – some of D.C.’s largest employers of immigrants and minority workers – weather the pandemic and keep District employees on the payroll.

For these reasons, and many more, we cannot afford to lose Kenyan’s voice on the Council. I urge everyone to cast their vote for Kenyan McDuffie for Council-at-large. 

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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Bisexual activists cautiously excited after White House meeting

Sept. 20 gathering took place during Bisexual Visibility Week

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From left to right: Ellyn Ruthstrom, Tania Israel, Nicole Holmes, Mimi Hoang, Ezra Young, Lauren Beach, Belle Hagget Silverman, Diana Adams, Heron Greenesmith, and Khafre Abif. Kneeling: Robyn Ochs, Fiona Dawson and Blair Imani outside the White House on Sept. 20, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Heron Greenesmith)

On Tuesday, Sept. 20, just in time for Bisexual Visibility Week, a diverse group of 15 bisexual and pansexual activists met with officials from the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), including Melanie Fontes Rainer, the director of the Office of Civil Rights at HHS. 

The 15 advocates comprised a wide cross-section of the bisexual community, including nonbinary, transgender, female, young, older, Black, Asian and Muslim advocates, people with disabilities and parents. We came from many walks of life: Academia, education, research, health care, advocacy, law, media and community activism. This isn’t unusual: Bisexual people comprise more than half of all LGBT people, totally approximately 12.5 million bisexual adults in the U.S. Strikingly, 15 percent of all GenZ adults — nearly 1 in 6 — identify as bisexual. People of color are more likely to identify as bisexual, as are cisegender women and transgender people in general. 

It has been a painful six years since the Executive Branch last met with bisexual activists (you do the math.) Those meetings, like this one, were the product of tireless advocacy from a population with zero paid organizational staff and less than one percent of all philanthropic dollars earmarked for the LGBT community. It was these stats and others that we shared at HHS on Sept. 20. 

Bisexual and pansexual people face specific disparities in mental and physical health, intimate partner violence and monkeypox prevention, treatment and care. Did you know, for example, that nearly half of bisexual women report having been raped? And did you know that federal reporting on monkeypox doesn’t disaggregate between gay and bisexual men and men who have sex with men, despite evidence that bisexual men are uniquely vulnerable to MPX and other infectious diseases. 

Khafre Abif is a Black bisexual educator, father and person living with HIV. At the meeting with agency officials, Abif shared the story of how staff at his HIV-care clinic initially denied him the monkeypox vaccine, despite Abif being bisexual and thus in a population of special focus for the vaccine. 

“This meeting has been a long time coming for the bi+ community,” said Abif. “I’m looking forward to a dialogue with federal officials about solving some of the health issues we face.”

In order to begin remedying these disparities and more, we presented the administration with a set of benchmarks, including the creation of a Federal Interagency Bisexual Liaison and a Federal Interagency Bisexual Working Group. Other benchmarks included training for HHS staff on bisexual disparities and remedies thereof, funding streams for bisexual-specific funding and interventions, and the disaggregation of data on specific health disparities. 

Robyn Ochs is a pillar of bisexual and pansexual community organizing. At HHS, Ochs shared more about her specific expertise. “Research has made clear our health disparities and invisibility. It’s time for federal interventions to catch up with what we already know through research and lived experience.”

Frustrated by years of inaction by the federal government to release bisexual-specific data, target the bisexual and pansexual community with tailored interventions, or recognize the importance of bi+ health in general, we are cautiously excited by this opportunity to share critical data and remedies. 

Heron Greenesmith is the Senior Research Analyst for LGBTQI+ Justice at Political Research Associates, and the co-founder of BiLaw and the Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition. Find Greenesmith on Twitter @herong.

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