Vice President Mike Pence used his platform in a World AIDS Day speech on November 29 to inflate the Trump administration’s record on the epidemic and exclude any mention of the LGBTQ community for a second straight year, angering advocacy groups around the country.
The vice president focused his speech on the work religious organizations are carrying out to combat HIV/ AIDS and announced the Trump administration is investing $100 million into faith-based organizations to combat the disease.
Pence’s remarks, however, largely served simply to highlight the serious concerns experts in the field have about how the current administration’s actions could hinder progress in the fight against HIV/ AIDS.
Pence praised the Ryan White AIDS CARE Act program, even as Trump has redirected funds from it to cover his family separation policy, and he lauded the President George W. Bush-initiated PEPFAR program — an initiative to address HIV/ AIDS on a global level — despite the president’s proposal to cut back on it significantly. (The Senate, however, passed an extension of PEPFAR on November 28, and Pence said Trump plans to sign it.)
Jesse Milan, Jr., president and CEO of the Washington-based policy group AIDS United, told Gay City News in a written statement that Pence’s speech was “par for the course” for the Trump administration and makes it much more difficult to work with the federal government.
“We are committed to working with this administration and officials at Health & Human Services to end the HIV epidemic, but we cannot do so unless we acknowledge and engage those communities most severely impacted,” he said.
Milan added that not only should the affected communities be acknowledged, but they should be acknowledged specifically. The LGBTQ community and black and Latinx gay and bisexual men and transgender women need to be mentioned, he said.
“Ignoring us won’t make us, or HIV, go away,” Milan said.
The refusal by Pence and Trump to mention the LGBTQ community in statements about AIDS is reminiscent of reluctance by Republican leaders in Washington in the epidemic’s earliest days to talk about it because of its association with gay men. President Ronald Reagan waited until 1985 to acknowledge HIV/ AIDS at all, let alone its connection to the gay community, and did not give a major speech on the issue until 1987.
Trump’s inaction on the epidemic led to a group resignation last year by six members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/ AIDS, and Trump responded by firing the remaining members. Scott Schoettes, Lambda Legal’s counsel and HIV project director, was among those who resigned — and he’s not surprised by the administration’s World AIDS Day speech.
“This Administration has shown nothing but apathy regarding the domestic HIV/ AIDS epidemic and outright hostility toward many of the communities most affected,” he told Gay City News in a written statement. “But we are not going anywhere, and this administration will not make us disappear by ignoring us or trying to define us out of existence, as it is attempting to do to the transgender community.”