Tennessee rejects HIV funding over inclusion of trans rights, abortion groups

The Tennessee government is turning down millions in federal funding for HIV prevention in what LGBTQ2S+ advocates say is a blatant attack on abortion and trans rights groups in the state.

Last fall, Republican Gov. Bill Lee publicly criticized both a trans health task force and Planned Parenthood for receiving funding from Tennessee’s state health grants. Late last week, however, Lee escalated his threat by announcing that effective May 31, the Tennessee government would no longer accept funds from the CDC earmarked for testing, prevention and treatment for HIV.

“It’s pretty hard to believe that the motivation is to limit funding to groups [they] don’t want to support,” said Wayne Smith, whose faith-based HIV prevention program in Knoxville will lose about $10,000 in annual funding with the move Washington Post.

Joseph Cherabie, an infectious disease physician at Washington University in St. Louis who directs an HIV prevention program, called the decision in an interview with “a coordinated effort… to try to dehumanize and stigmatize the LGBTQ2S+ community.” Local Today Tennessee.

“A state that chooses to pull out of federal healthcare funding — if it gets away with it — could introduce a very dangerous pattern.”

According to Washington Post, State officials say the government plans to shift HIV funding to “victims of human trafficking… transmission to first responders.” [and] … transmission from mothers to their babies,” but didn’t explain the reasoning behind the decision. The new strategy is in stark contrast to the previous state and prevailing federal strategy of prioritizing gay men, queer and trans people — specifically BIPOC queer and trans people — homeless people and IV drug users.

Local LGBTQ2S+ public health advocates point out that denial of federal funding actually absolves the state of its responsibility to follow CDC guidelines for scientifically evidence-based medical policy, thereby empowering the state to deny care that he deems appropriate.

“A state that chooses to pull out of federal health care funding — if it gets away with it — could introduce a very dangerous pattern,” says Molly Rose Quinn, executive director of OUTMemphis, Tennessee’s largest LGBTQ2S+ health organization.

The move is the latest in an ongoing battle between Planned Parenthood and the Republican-controlled Tennessee government. the Associated Press Reported documents show that even before the state’s decision to cut funding for nonprofits, the government had planned to specifically cut HIV testing and treatment programs at Planned Parenthood.

Republican former state governor Bill Haslam first attempted to terminate the state’s subcontracts with Planned Parenthood in 2015 and was subsequently sued by Planned Parenthood. The state lost, and the injunction is still in effect today — making it very difficult to pull any money from just Planned Parenthood.

Both medical professionals and queer advocates have unanimously opposed the funding cuts.

“We really freaked out, to be honest,” Quinn told dem Washington Post. “Not only are we concerned about the people we serve directly, but nationally, HIV transmission rates in this part of the country are alarming.” The group has received $180,000 from the CDC’s HIV testing program so far.

Advocates in Tennessee are particularly concerned because Shelby County, which includes Tennessee’s capital Memphis, already faces some of the highest rates of HIV infection in the country. According to the CDC, 819 out of every 100,000 residents of Shelby County were HIV positive in 2020. The average for the entire state as of 2023 is 11.3 per 100,000, and the US national average is about 300 per 100,000. Experts say the state could potentially see a bigger outbreak due to the loss of funding.

What’s next, Quinn told dem Washington Post that groups across Tennessee are striving to find alternative funding options such as local or state grants and to form partnerships with other community organizations. But she says the situation is bleak and the future prospects scary.

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