In this unprecedented time of the COVID-19 pandemic, so many of us are uncertain about our futures and livelihoods. But for some, the added fear of facing workplace discrimination and loss of medical coverage looms large. Right here in our home state, LGBTQ North Carolinians aren’t protected under state law from being unfairly fired and therefore left vulnerable to losing health care coverage, being denied housing or getting turned away from a business simply for who they are or who they love.

My work as an advocate for people living with HIV puts me at the center of LGBTQ health and rights advocacy because many people living with HIV identify as LGBTQ. New cases of HIV are disproportionately concentrated in the south, and many are in North Carolina. Many of those North Carolinians living with HIV are LGBTQ, black, or Latinx. Increasingly, many are youth, regardless of their sexual orientation. Everyone deserves access to accurate information and proper treatment. And we owe it to our community to break down stigma and ban discrimination that would threaten that. Though there are some federal protections in place that prevent explicit discrimination against people because they have HIV, those laws are insufficient.

When someone living with HIV loses their job, it can mean losing health insurance they need for critical treatment of the disease. Treatments exist now that are able to suppress the virus to the extent that it is un-transmittable to others. This means that people who are HIV positive can date and have long-term relationships with people who are HIV negative without fear of transmitting the virus. This is a significant public health benefit that depends on people having consistent daily access to medication.

Yes, you read that right. We have the ability to stop transmission of HIV, which is good for the individual and great for our broader public health. But when someone with HIV is fired from their job and stripped of health insurance, the consequences are severe and far reaching.

In the time of COVID-19, issues such as LGBTQ discrimination and access to health care can be overshadowed by other threats. It’s understandable to want to focus on what feels the most immediate during this emergency.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering three employment discrimination cases that could determine whether LGBTQ people are still protected under federal law, or will be stripped of this protection. A ruling from the Court is expected any day.

As our country’s unemployment numbers rise to historic heights during this pandemic, it’s critical that no one should be subject job discrimination because of who they are or who they love, or their gender identity. This is especially troubling in states like North Carolina where statewide protections do not exist.

No matter how the Supreme Court rules, discrimination will still exist. North Carolina should pass statewide protections, and the U.S. Congress must pass federal protections so every LGBTQ person can live their lives true to who they are, free of harassment and discrimination.

Lee Storrow is the executive director of North Carolina AIDS Action Network and a former member of the Chapel Hill Town Council. He may be reached at: Lee@ncaan.org

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