Publix, Hobby Lobby, and You by Ian Stearns

Last December, I was visiting Virginia to see my mom and my best friend. Since I’d last been to Richmond a Publix had opened up; the northernmost location of the popular southeastern supermarket. An ex of mine from Florida used to talk about it a lot (apparently the chicken tender sub is primo), and my best friend was pretty excited to show me the seven full aisles of yogurt they keep in stock. It was lovely and clean and I thought, “Gee, there’s nothing wrong with this place!”

Surprise.

Yesterday The Body, an online information resource for living with and preventing HIV/AIDS, published an article about a Publix employee in Georgia who was not covered by their employer’s health insurance to go on PrEP (a pre-exposure prophylaxis taken once a day to prevent HIV infection). Sounds familiar.

Publix put out a statement about how much they do for their employees and how they should all be grateful, then suggested that they don’t cover PrEP because of cost. That’s strange considering that surely not all of their 188,000 employees would need to go on PrEP. Surely not all of them are considered at risk of HIV infection, and surely they understand that the cost of prevention is significantly less than the cost of treatment. Surely they understand that.

Whenever I tell other gay men to care about reproductive rights, this is what I’m talking about. Though we don’t personally suffer when access to abortion and birth control are restricted, we should care about those things because it is interwoven into the fight for our own healthcare, our own right to privacy, and our own sexual independence. What they limit for women they will inevitably limit for us. It’s naïve to think otherwise. Hobby Lobby provided the groundwork for this exact thing to happen, so it is unsurprising that as soon the good word of Truvada made its way to places with smaller, poorer populations, employers are choosing to hold their ground on the wrong side of history, put employees at risk, and talk around the fact that they think if we get sick, or have an unwanted pregnancy, that it’s our fault and we ought to live with the consequences.

This is also at the crossroads of racial injustice. This story comes out of Fulton County, which is part of the Atlanta metro area. Atlanta has some of the highest rates of new HIV infection in the country, and black men and women regardless of sexual orientation are disproportionately affected. The region Publix serves – Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, and the Carolinas – has some of the highest new infection rates in the country. Florida, where Publix operates a whopping 781 stores, has three of the top ten cities with the highest rates of new HIV diagnosis: Miami, Orlando, and Jacksonville. Columbia, SC, and Memphis are on the list too. The people at risk and in need do not uniformly fit the same sexual, racial, or gender profiles, so to say they forego coverage for cost seems even more irresponsible, not only for the ethical dilemma of being able to prevent a disease and choosing not to, but because of their 188,000 employees, more are at-risk than they may realize if they’re just eyeballing it by how many boys like Cher.

I say this because I want to scare a fight into all of us. Not just for yourself, or for our community, but for our allies; for the women who deserve the right to choose; for the black woman in Louisiana with a boyfriend on the downlow, who doesn’t know the risk she’s actually in; for the trans woman in South Carolina who just wants to use the bathroom she wants to use. These people share the same fundamental right to safety, to sexual healthcare, and to self-determination that I have as a gay man in New York, someone who has paid maybe $15 for all of the PrEP I’ve ever had in the last three years, and who has never once worried that it wouldn’t be made available to me.

Some of us get very lucky––we live in a place that’s passed better laws, that’s more welcoming and understanding of our needs, and the worries of the farthest reaches of our community disappear. The Publix employee and the Hobby Lobby employee seem so distant that we selfishly, mistakenly, don’t think of it as our problem. But their fight is our fight, and it is more than ever because we’ve put this off for too long. Now Hobby Lobby is in our backyard. The decision still stands, and at any time it can become a really, really big problem for all of us.

And suddenly you care about birth control law suits, don’t you?

Ian Stearns is a Virginian by birth and a New Yorker by choice. He is an advocate, contributor, and erstwhile secondary lead of Victorian comedies. He prefers not to discuss polarizing issues like religion or who is the definitive Mama Rose in polite company. He believes women's rights and reproductive justice are non-negotiable and thinks you should, too.

Ian is a proud member of the Board of Directors of A is For.

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