"What's the matter with Kansas?" indeed. Far removed from the media spotlight of New York City or Washington, the intrepid lawmakers of that great state have come up with something new and exciting: a bill, HB2183, that makes it legally possible to quarantine and/or physically isolate (concentrate?) people infected with HIV, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus that is the proximate cause of AIDS.
And by bill, I mean a piece of legislation that has already passed one chamber of the state legislature and merely requires an additional vote and the governor's signature to become valid, enforceable law.
Said governor is Sam Brownback, a notorious reactionary during his brief, unhappy - for the country, he surely had a blast - tenure in the U.S. Senate, who these days seems to be intent on turning his entire state into an Ayn Rand income-tax-free theme park with action rides based on every single terrible right wing idea ever hatched. This is a man who seems to take not just pride but outright pleasure from cutting spending on school lunches, or raising taxes on the poor while cutting them for the 1%. Remember back in 2011, when Rick Perry was running for pretzeldent and threw that huge prayer party in Austin? Only one other governor out of the fifty attended that particular freak show - and that would be Sam Brownback.
Exactly the kind of guy you'd totally trust with a legal tool that lets him lock up, pardon, isolate, mainly gay men and people of color, all without those liberal niceties of due process, right?
Now, Kansas is obviously not the center of the universe, nor is the state home to a huge, well-organized LGBT population in the mold of California or New York. Homosexuality is still illegal under Kansas state law, just as an aside; but one wonders just which pressing public concern exactly HB2183 could serve to address. Cui bono?
What is clearly not a part of the equation is any concern with public health. There are diseases that spread via a sneeze or a handshake; HIV isn't one of them. There are PG-13 and clinical ways of explaining the process, but in sum, you either need to get fucked by or share needles with someone who carries the virus in amounts large enough to make the jump from one host to another. I'm just going to go out on a limb here and assume that for most folks, that's not everyday casual contact – the kind that a quarantine is used to disrupt. Experience strongly suggests that making condoms and clean needles (for IV drug users) widely available is rather effective at reducing HIV transmission, but that doesn't seem to be on the table in Conservatopia.
So why pass this law at all, if it's not a useful epidemiological tool? Don't get me wrong: there is absolutely a valid discussion to be had about the spread of HIV in the communities the virus has always been most prevalent in, none of which are a part of the GOP coalition. But quarantines, isolation and the most extreme conclusion thereof, concentration camps, aren't a part of that conversation. Not today, at least.
LGBT Kansans are understandably wary of the good will of their government.
“Our state’s health department is willing to roll back a 25-year old civil rights protection,” Thomas Witt, the Executive Director of the Kansas Equality Coalition, told ThinkProgress. “LGBT Kansans are already subject to harassment and legal discrimination, and removing the existing HIV quarantine exemption from law leaves vulnerable Kansans at risk of discriminatory, unfair treatment by local officials.”Said health department is, needless to say, outraged that anyone would suspect gambling in their casino.
Other activists have also expressed concern that Kansans might not understand how HIV can be spread, and have implicit biases thanks to a lack of knowledge. “We live in a very conservative state and I’m afraid there are still many people, especially in rural Kansas, that have inadequate education and understanding concerning HIV/AIDS,” Cody Patton, of sexual health group Positive Directions told Gay Star News. This theory was also evidenced by a debate earlier this year, when the Kansas health department eliminated HIV testing for most counties in the state.
“It is an attempt to manage all infectious diseases and not to have a special carve-out to handle one infectious disease differently from everyone else,” he said. “By stating explicitly that a certain infectious disease, in this case HIV, deserves special protection, some would argue that it actually perpetuates the exceptionalism, the potential for discrimination that the advocacy community that has spoken out in opposition to this bill say they are concerned about.”Call me cynical, but I'd bet good money that this is the real goal here: to further stigmatize not just people infected with HIV, but LGBT Kansans in toto.
Thomas Witt, executive director of the Kansas Equality Coalition, said people with HIV are not likely to be subjected to a quarantine. But he added that state health officials are ignoring the risk that county officials could use the new law to threaten and intimidate HIV-positive men and women in the state’s rural precincts.
“This gives the power to local health officials to harass people,” he said. “States that don’t have specific protections built into their law see individual officials harassing people because of their HIV status or sexual orientation.”
The final fate of this bill is still up for grabs. The good people of Kansas are not, in the aggregate, stupid, hateful, or malicious.
Their government, however, is a different matter entirely.