The same day that Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed a state law allowing for the discrimination against LGBT workers and customers in the name of religion, he also lifted a ban on needle exchanges in response to a serious HIV epidemic. That is a good move, needle exchanges are among the most effective means of fighting HIV infections; unfortunately, the ban will return in 30 days.
As a child of the 1980s I immediately saw the connection between these two stories. Historically, HIV/AIDS and LGBT communities have been linked, as sexual minorities were among the first groups to suffer from the epidemic in the late 70s; consequently, homophobia — along with disdain for addicts and racism against Haitian immigrants, who were also targeted by the virus — delayed treatment and finding remedies or cures for strains of HIV and AIDS related diseases. Yet in America we have come so far in our understanding of the disease, in respecting the rights of its victims, in finding cures, and in recognizing the humanity and integrity of sexual minorities, that the confluence of these two events in Indiana — religiously motivated bigotry and short-sighted public health policy — took me by surprise.
It shouldn’t, of course. Ideologically driven public policies that defy science and basic respect for human rights are nothing new. Pence says he will restore the ban on needle exchange programs once those very programs resolve the HIV crisis. Why? He doesn’t think giving drug addicts free needles is effective anti-drug policy. So bound is he to a War On Drugs mentality that he is willing to risk public health and the lives of people addicted to drugs by dumping an health program that actually works, because it contradicts his reflexive biases about drugs and crime. I give him credit for lifting the ban, but he should recognize that effective public health policies should be retained. If he were truly serious about reducing the impact of drugs on his state, he would pursue treatment programs that get addicts off drugs and help them restart their lives.