Tennessee has announced that it intends to refuse $8.3 million in Centers for Disease Control funding for HIV “testing, prevention and treatment.” The decision was partially motivated by a recent campaign against the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, which was targeted by Daily Wire pundits Ben Shapiro and Matt Walsh for providing gender-affirming care to transgender youth.
The 2022 campaign against hospitals and physicians that provide gender-affirming care spread quickly from Twitter to right-wing podcast and cable news hosts. The media frenzy resulted in rampant misinformation, anti-trans bigotry, and threats of violence against both the institutions and their health care professionals.
Vanderbilt University Medical Center was among the hospitals targeted for complying with state medical guidelines, as well as American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and American Psychological Association recommendations for trans patients. The Daily Wire has published several articles repeating false or fearmongering claims about the procedures offered at the hospital. Meanwhile, Walsh has conducted a personal crusade, bringing his online hate into the real world by hosting a rally in protest of gender-affirming care in Tennessee.
In response, Vanderbilt initially removed information from its website that detailed trans health care — including a task force that focused on trans health and HIV prevention — and paused care for transgender minors.
While directed at a specific facet of transgender care that worked closely with HIV prevention, the panic quickly spread to include “the unit that combats HIV, sexually transmitted infections and viral hepatitis at the Tennessee Health Department,” according to NBC News. NBC reporting has confirmed that the media attention received by the trans health clinic and task force, which is funded in part by HIV prevention resources, led to a review of all HIV prevention programs that receive federal funding — including programs that provide care for cisgender people living with HIV. As a result of this review, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has rejected $8.3 million in federal funding for HIV prevention and care across the state.
The decision will greatly limit the resources of advocacy organizations and health care professionals, likely heightening the risk of disease among Tennessee residents, in particular gay, bisexual, and transgender populations and people of color. Because the funds are specifically reserved for HIV prevention and care, the state neither saves money nor maintains access to the funds for other purposes.
Although trans health care was the intended target of Daily Wire attacks in this case, the outlet and its hosts have made anti-gay statements in the past, revealing an ideological stance that uses both gay and transgender people as political scapegoats.
In addition to spreading anti-trans hate, Walsh and Shapiro have expressed disdain for same–sex marriage, same-sex parenting, and legal protections for same-sex families. The outcome of the campaign against Vanderbilt is not only a “nuclear option” that disposes of HIV prevention resources in an effort to limit access to gender-affirming care, but also a reflection of right-wing media’s extreme position against both gay and trans communities.
Panic stoked by right-wing media outlets is shaping this legislative session and promises to frame the next presidential election if it remains unchecked. While many of the anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in record numbers target gender-affirming care for minors, some states have also proposed bills that protect anti-LGBTQ and same-sex marriage discrimination. Attacks on trans health care are not outliers, but rather indicators of extreme anti-LGBTQ sentiment that affects all LGBTQ people and, in this case, the health of all Tennessee residents.