For two days following the deadliest mass shooting in American history and the murders of forty-nine mostly Latino/Latina patrons of a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida’s Governor Rick Scott neglected to even mention LGBTQ people. For the state’s Republican leadership, it wasn’t enough that LGBTQ people were specifically targeted and executed—we needed to be systematically erased from the narrative as well.
This is par for the course for Scott and his administration. His insensitivity and neglect in the wake of the Orlando massacre is emblematic of a longstanding political tradition of ignoring marginalized populations or being openly hostile toward their struggles to achieve equality. A now-infamous CNN interview with the state’s Attorney General Pam Bondi following the murders nationally exposed the Scott administration’s horrifically oppressive stance on marriage equality. In March of this year, Scott signed completely superfluous and unnecessary language into law saying that clergy do not have to marry same-sex couples.
One of the best barometers for how a state or a nation supports its most marginalized populations, especially LGBTQ individuals, is its HIV epidemic. HIV travels along the cracks in society and depends on the neglect of oppressed populations in order to spread. Given the obvious political hostility to LGBTQ populations, it is not surprising that in 2014 Florida had the second highest rate of new HIV diagnoses in the nation. According to 2014 CDC surveillance data, Miami-Ft. Lauderdale-West Palm Beach is the second most affected U.S. metropolitan statistical area (MSA) by rate of new diagnoses, while Orlando is part of the fifth most affected MSA. According to estimates at the Florida Department of Health, since Rick Scott took office, reported new infections have continued to hover around 6,000 cases per year with no improvement in sight. An overwhelming number of those new infections occur in gay and bisexual men and transgender women of color.
Florida’s HIV epidemic isn’t out of control due to chance. The state is consistently doing worse than the rest of the nation because for years the Republican leadership has not been interested in the basic needs and rights of Florida’s most marginalized populations, particularly LGBTQ communities and people of color. By repeatedly and vociferously refusing to take free federal dollars in order to expand Medicaid in the state, Republicans are effectively denying healthcare to many of the state’s nearly 2.8 million uninsured and poorest residents, most of whom come from communities of color. The health and wellbeing of marginalized Floridians is of such little concern to Rick Scott and his administration that he, along with his recently dismissed Surgeon General, John Armstrong, have spent much of their time in office slashing funding inside their Department of Health and county health departments. When we talk about structural and social oppression of marginalized populations as the primary drivers of HIV and other health crises in LGBTQ populations and communities of color, this unwillingness to invest in public health is exactly what we are talking about.
The oppressive attitudes, behaviors, and policy decisions of political leaders like Scott place marginalized communities at an increased risk of countless forms of harm. By refusing to even acknowledge LGBTQ populations following one of the single most violent events in our history, the Republican leadership has been placing sexual and gender minorities at increased risk of additional physical violence and contributing to a culture of hate and neglect. No matter how much work communities do to protect themselves and make themselves safer, they cannot overcome a state government that seeks to completely erase them from the discussion.
Similarly, by failing to construct an adequate healthcare coverage system in the state, Rick Scott is perhaps the biggest risk factor for acquiring HIV in Florida. His policies effectively deny expedient access to treatment for those living with HIV, making it far more challenging for individuals to suppress the virus and nearly eliminate the possibility of passing it on to others. They also ensure that it will remain almost impossible for the most marginalized HIV-negative individuals in Florida who want pre-exposure or post-exposure prophylaxis to access these essential prevention tools. Just as we cannot protect ourselves from violence without support from our political leaders, we cannot protect ourselves from HIV when oppressive politicians do not prioritize our needs or outright ignore us.
In the face of Orlando, we deserve more than moments of silence and prayers from all of our local, state, and national leaders; we need them to stop denying our equality, ignoring our health and physical safety, and effectively contributing to our figurative and literal erasure. If there were true justice in the face of this tragedy, then Scott would take the money he’s slashed out of his Department of Health and heavily invest into a whole division whose sole focus is to identify and solve the biggest threats to the health and wellbeing of LGBTQ individuals in his state, including violence and HIV. Scott would be publicly held accountable to provide healthcare coverage options for every single person in his state.
Given his track record, it’s difficult to expect Scott to pursue any meaningful solutions without aggressive advocacy. Unless affected communities find a way to organize themselves, act up, and fight back against his oppressive stances, Florida will spend at least two more years with a leader that actively and deliberately omits the needs of queers from his consideration and contributes directly to our erased identities, our erased existences…our erased public health needs.
Many thanks to Benjamin Barnett for contributing research to this piece.
Jeremiah Johnson is the HIV Prevention Research and Policy Coordinator at the Treatment Action Group in New York. His career as an HIV activist began in 2008 after working with the ACLU to challenge the U.S. Peace Corps for wrongfully dismissing him from his volunteer service because he had tested positive for HIV. He is a frequent speaker and writer on topics related to HIV, racism, and LGBTQ rights.