While the country remains in shock after Tennessee’s recent ban on public drag performances, another, more insidious attack on the LGBTQ+ community has been underway in the state.
A coordinated effort by right-wing media and conservative lawmakers has decimated community-based programs addressing healthcare for LGBTQ+ people in Tennessee, including efforts to combat HIV.
In January, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) announced his administration was rejecting $8.8 million in federal funds provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for HIV prevention and treatment.
Left unsaid was the fact that some of those dollars had made their way to programs run by groups associated with trans healthcare. After a months-long outrage campaign by right-wing media, Gov. Lee finally threw the baby out with the bathwater.
The pressure campaign started in September, when right-wing provocateurs Matt Walsh and Ben Shapiro set their sights on the transgender care program at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University Medical Center, which Walsh described as “barbaric.”
“They now castrate, sterilize, and mutilate minors as well as adults,” Walsh said at the time.
Walsh amplified the accusations with an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show on September 21 publicizing his “investigation,” while the Daily Wire co-founder Shapiro promoted the charges on his YouTube channel and podcast, detailing “nonsense garbage that a boy can be a girl and a girl can be a boy.”
The very next day, Gov. Lee issued a statement calling for a “thorough investigation.”
The accusations ignited a social media firestorm and surfaced the existence of the Tennessee Transgender Task Force, a volunteer team at Vanderbilt focused on trans health and HIV prevention, funded in part by those CDC dollars.
Weeks later, in November, the trans program’s director Dr. Pamela Talley told staff that federal dollars funding the task force, as well as Tennessee Planned Parenthood, would cease at year’s end.
Then in mid-January, the Lee administration announced it would not just end funding for those recipients, which totaled $235,000, but also that it would reject entirely a pair of CDC grants directed at HIV prevention, treatment and monitoring in the state worth more than $8.8 million.
“People have been crying all week,” one Tennessee Health Department staffer told NBC News after the announcement on January 20.
Ashley Coffield, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and Northern Mississippi, said the decision “felt like they were punching me in the gut.”
“I couldn’t believe that the governor would take the nuclear option,” she said, adding that she saw the move as a “political vendetta against abortion rights groups and transgender people.”
On Wednesday, newly appointed Tennessee Health Commissioner Ralph Alvarado told a state Senate committee that money from the grants would be replaced with $9 million in state funds.
Alvarado called the federal grants “cumbersome.”
“I think this is going to allow a bit of innovation, a little bit of liberty,” Alvarado testified. “I think it’s going to help vulnerable populations: people who are in human trafficking populations, mothers, children, first responders.”
But those populations, also identified by the governor’s office, are not the ones most affected by the HIV epidemic in Tennessee, experts say.
“Tennessee is preferring to fight a fictitious epidemic rather than their very real HIV epidemic,” Greg Millett, the director of public policy at amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research, told NBC News.
“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.”
He added: “All of this is willful ignorance on the part of the state government.”
When State Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville) asked Alvarado if future state funding would focus on the highest-risk groups, including men who have sex with men and intravenous drug users, the health commissioner was less than definitive.
“I imagine that the same populations they’ve been approaching will continue to receive benefits from this.”