Donald Trump’s disrespectful jokes regarding Mike Pence’s views of gay men – saying that Pence wants to “hang them all” – coupled with his attendance at the recent Values Voters Summit in which a “Health Hazards of Homosexuality” pamphlet was handed out to attendees, are rooted in a long history of animosity toward the LGBTQ population by this administration.
The pamphlet posits that the lifestyle of gay men create a public health crisis.
It is the actions and words of the Trump-Pence administration that create the public health crisis for gay men and for the population at large. Their overt hatred for the gay community legitimizes the behaviors of others in our country to overtly discriminate against and physically and emotionally attack gay men – a clear attack on our health. Their actions exacerbate the gay community’s shared feeling of “otherness,” the sense of difference and loneliness that serve as catalysts to undermine our emotional and physical health. Our behaviors, which allegedly create a “health hazard,” are the result of attitudes within our society – including those from our families, places of worship and work – that label us as useless, damaged goods. The sense of “otherness” that we are now again experiencing at heightened levels because of the Trump-Pence administration is the very thing that will ultimately undermine public health.
Pence has opposed the rights of the gay population throughout his career. His 2000 Congressional campaign openly stated “Congress should oppose any effort to put gay and lesbian relationships on an equal legal status with heterosexual marriage” and that “Congress should oppose any effort to recognize homosexuals as a ‘discreet and insular minority’ entitled to the protection of anti-discrimination laws similar to those extended to women and ethnic minorities.” And under Pence’s watch, the Indiana Policy Review published: “Homosexuals are not as a group able-bodied. They are known to carry extremely high rates of disease brought about because of the nature of their sexual practice and the promiscuity which is the hallmark of their lifestyles.”
These inflammatory and insensitive words were, of course, made at the height of the AIDS epidemic, when thousands of young, gay men succumbed to the ravages of this despicable disease – a disease that snuck up on us and killed way too many, including five incredible men in my own life. For many people, like myself, the crisis served to energize a fight for our lives. But for others, like Pence, it was an affirmation of their perceptions of gay men as weak and sickly, an opportunity to kick those who were already down – the behavior of a bully.
The presidential administration continues to hurl accusations and attacks at our community – aggressions that have a direct impact on the individual and public health of gay men.
There is a robust body of empirical evidence to prove that structural inequities and social conditions undermine wellbeing and fuel health disparities, including those among gay men. This was clearly delineated in the 2011 report of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, which documented the detrimental effects of social circumstances on the health of the gay population. Poor, stigmatizing social conditions and attacks like those noted above have a direct impact on our health. When our rights are protected and polices are enacted that provide us with support, there is a marked increase in our wellbeing. This includes protection in the workplace and in housing as well as our right to marry those who we love. It is for these reasons that I argued marriage equality would have a direct impact on the AIDS epidemic when, in 2012, I wrote in the American Journal of Public Health:
"It is this improvement in social capital that will ultimately improve our collective health, helping both ourselves and our society at large to more effectively address the physical and mental health challenges that we face. This is why I also believe that marriage equality will help to reduce the burden of AIDS for future generations of gay men. Marriage will prove to be as powerful a weapon in the prevention of this disease and should garner as much excitement as the new wave in biomedical approaches to HIV prevention."
We could sit by and once again succumb to the hate that kills us. But we won’t. Like we did when a virus was destroying our population, we as gay men rallied and utilized that feeling of otherness to fight evil. We will do so again.
Perry N. Halkitis, Dean and Professor, Rutgers School of Public Health, is the author of The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival and Resilience and the upcoming book Out in Time: Gay Men Coming Out across the Generations, both published by Oxford University Press. Follow him on Twitter.