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Op-Ed: The South’s Discrimination Problem - From HIV to Regulating Bathrooms

The southern United States is a region rich with history and diverse culture, and the vibrancy of the South brings so much beauty to our country. I personally am a product of a black southern upbringing. My father was born in Tennessee, both of my parents were raised in Mississippi and my grandmother was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. So when I say I am a product of the black South, I’m talking about the joys of Sweet tea and the disgust of chitlins; the spiritual uplifting of gospel music in tiny churches with wooden pews, and the solemn sounds of Negro Spirituals along the journey to Freedom. My lineage in America undoubtedly started in the South. And while it is a place that has brought tremendous joy to me and so many others, we can never forget that the daily struggles of many communities still exists because of a foundation built on hate and discrimination.

In the last month alone three southern states have either passed or proposed harmful and discriminatory bills that target LGBT people, and particularly transgender people. Tennessee’s HB2412/SB2387 is awaiting the Governor’s signature, while North Carolina’s HB 2, and Mississippi’s HB 1523 have already been signed into law. These bills are all forms of legislation that stand to strip a group of people of their dignity and humanity. It is a response to unfounded fears based out of myths, lies and misguided religious beliefs.

But are we that surprised by these actions?

Many right-wing politicians in the South have a long history of ignoring identities, targeting the most vulnerable, and basking in their perceived superiority as cisgender, heterosexual and white. Look at the late Strom Thurmond, a Senator from South Carolina who changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican because he opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Not to mention the fact that he had a biracial daughter who he financially supported but never publicly acknowledged. This is a region where many are still not over losing the Civil War. When 150 years is still too soon, you have got to reevaluate your value system. The Confederacy is over, the Confederate flag is offensive and the South will not rise again, unless it involves passing laws that dehumanize its citizens.

This is how Southern right-wing politicians choose to engage LGBT populations, with discrimination masked as religious freedom. This is how they choose to treat the most vulnerable members of their community, with disdain and blatant disregard. In the United States, at least 22 transgender women, most of them women of color, were murdered last year. But instead of focusing on the safety of transgender individuals, politicians are concerned with who uses which public bathroom.

It doesn’t seem to occur to these politicians to care that LGBT people, especially transgender people, who are 3-5 times more likely to experience mental health challenges, substance abuse, or attempted suicide. It doesn’t occur to them to care that the South accounts for 44% of all people in the United States living with an HIV diagnosis, despite only being 37% of the overall U.S. population. This is in large part due to the non-affirming environment that has been created for LGBT communities and the multiple forms of structural oppression that exists.

The other part of this situation that is mind-blowing is the fact that these laws are being passed in the name of Christianity. I’m in no position to question anyone’s faith or walk with God; however, these laws are not upholding Christian values and beliefs. Instead, they are upholding beliefs that are racially biased and bigoted. Christianity teaches me to love my neighbor as myself and “let he among us without sin be the first to condemn.”

Being a Christian means having compassion and reaching out to your fellow brothers and sisters. Being a Christian means not treating others the way man treats you, but treating them the way God treats you. And from where I sit, none of how God treats me would ever involve refusing to provide services for people and regulating bathrooms.

Instead of sending the message that the lives of LGBT people don’t matter, southern politicians should be advocating for their lives. That means creating safe spaces for LGBT people to live and be affirmed, increasing access to quality physical and mental healthcare, and advocating for and proposing programs that will decrease the burden of HIV in the South. I’m sure many people may not see the impact that this legislation can have on HIV. However, the passing of these laws creates a clear path to health iniquity.

HIV is a symptom of larger structural problems in this country, and systemic racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia have largely contributed to the burden of HIV for LGBT people, particularly in the South. Being mistreated, rejected and faced with constant hostility can lead to significant challenges in one’s life. Imagine being forced out of your home just for saying out loud that you’re gay, bisexual or transgender. That act alone can lead others to mistreat you, resulting in mental distress, attempted suicide, substance abuse, struggles finding employment and maintaining stable housing. Those challenges can then increase vulnerability to poverty and high-risk sexual behavior, which lead to higher rates of HIV infection and poor treatment outcomes.

The passing of anti-LGBT laws says to the world that it is okay to mistreat people who are different. They say that it is okay to dismiss what we don’t understand. It allows discrimination to impact the health and overall well-being of an entire community of people. That is not a Christian value and it surely isn’t an American one. Assassinated politician and LGBT activist Harvey Milk said, “It takes no compromise to give people their rights... It takes no money to respect the individual. It takes no political deal to give people freedom. It takes no survey to remove repression.” 

In other words, it takes nothing to treat people as exactly what they are: human beings.