Editor’s note: This is the most recent installment of our new blog. We will be asking for insights from people from across the community who have something to say about their experiences, the ongoing state of affairs, or their lives that will speak to our current time together. Today we hear from Levi Berkshire, a staff member at CARES of Southwest Michigan. If you would like to contribute please let us know. — Kathy Jennings, Managing Editor, Southwest Michigan's Second Wave
LGBTQ people have always faced barriers to health care. That is particularly true for those of us living with HIV. Now it is all the more heightened in the Co-Vid 19 epidemic. Sometimes the barriers take the form of unwelcoming attitudes at a doctor’s office or a lack of understanding from health providers and their staff. At other times, in worst-case scenarios, it is the outright refusal of providing treatment. At those times the barriers are clear: there is a lack of explicit protections from discrimination against LGBTQ people, including here in Michigan.
For LGBTQ people living with HIV — like me — the impact of discrimination and the fear of it is all too real. I know this first-hand, and from my work as a case manager at CARES, a local HIV/AIDS resource and education organization.
Shortly after I was diagnosed as HIV positive in 2014, unrelated to my status, I experienced vertigo. When I went to a doctor for treatment, they asked if they could treat me “like a normal person.” What could that possibly mean? It was upsetting, but in the end an educational experience for my doctor, when I explained that yes, they could and should still treat me as they would anyone else.
Levi Berkshire says: "People living with HIV/AIDS are among those who may have compromised immune systems that make COVID-19 even more dangerous."
The current COVID-19 pandemic is scary for all of us. It’s especially terrifying for people at high-risk. People living with HIV/AIDS are among those who may have compromised immune systems that make COVID-19 even more dangerous.
Meanwhile, the lack of protections from discrimination for LGBTQ people at work and elsewhere can create additional barriers to healthcare access. This is dangerous not just for LGBTQ people, but for our community as a whole. The only way to fight this pandemic is to ensure that everyone can follow the recommended CDC guidelines. That means being able to access care and COVID-19 testing when appropriate. We all need to participate to flatten the curve and stop the spread. This won’t happen if people avoid testing for fear of discrimination at the doctor’s office.
Discrimination against LGBTQ people is pervasive in our society; nearly two-thirds of LGBTQ Americans have reported facing discrimination in their daily lives. For those living with HIV, the likelihood of discrimination is even greater. Even today someone who is LGBTQ could be fired from their job simply because of who they are - a devastating prospect during this time of pandemic and economic instability.
Losing a job can also mean losing health coverage. Losing health coverage during a pandemic can put someone living with HIV at extreme risk.
HIV is now commonly treated as a chronic health condition. People living with HIV rely on regular medication to stay healthy and ensure that our viral load is undetectable — and therefore untransmittable — this means that we need to have access to our medication.
No one should be at risk of losing their job — and their health care along with it — simply because they are LGBTQ or living with HIV. The COVID-19 pandemic underscores that even more.
Michigan is where I was born, and where I live and work. Our state should pass comprehensive nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people, and Congress must pass federal protections like the Equality Act so that we can all live free from harassment and discrimination.
I’m closely watching a trio of cases before the U.S. Supreme Court that are focused on LGBTQ employment discrimination. A decision could come down any day and will determine whether federal law will continue to protect LGBTQ people at work.
What the Court decides in those cases will have a significant impact on LGBTQ people and all those living with HIV. That’s especially true in states like ours that lack specific protections in state law. A loss at the Supreme Court could also mean that doctor’s offices and health insurance providers will no longer be barred at the federal level from discriminating against LGBTQ people.
As Jonathan Van Ness from the show Queer Eye (who is also living with HIV) says, “We are all people and we should be treated with respect and dignity.”
Levi Berkshire is a staff member at CARES, Community AIDS Resource and Education Services of Southwest Michigan.