By Robert Suttle
The talk about curing AIDS is rhetoric, unless one also includes curing injustice in our criminal justice system and curing stigmatization of people with HIV and others society sets apart, making them "the other,” like positive women, sex workers, men who have sex with men, drug users, transgendered persons, migrants, and our LGBTQ youth. We can’t cure HIV/AIDS until we address the whole host of public health issues that exacerbate the epidemic.
I am not a criminal. I am not a sex offender, but the state of Louisiana says that I am. A former partner, with whom I had a contentious relationship, filed charges against me for not having initially disclosed my HIV-positive status when we first met. This was not about transmitting HIV - I wasn't accused of that - just about whether or not I shared my HIV status. I spent my savings to hire a lawyer and ultimately accepted a plea bargain, rather than risk a 10-year sentence. I served six months in prison for a conviction under Louisiana's so called "Intentional Exposure to the AIDS Virus" statute. Now I am obligated to register as a sex offender for 15 years. On my Louisiana driver's license, underneath my photograph, it says in large red capital letters "SEX OFFENDER".
When I was released from prison, in January 2011, I knew that I needed a new life plan. I was now not only a gay black man with HIV, but also a convicted felon and registered sex offender. My career had been in the state appellate court system, but they could not hire a convicted felon. My employment options were limited. I also knew that I had suffered a terrible injustice, although I did not know it had a name: "HIV Criminalization"
So, as I contemplated rebuilding my life, I remembered this saying: "your misery is your ministry" meaning that which pains you, that which causes you discomfort, that which has been burdened upon you is exactly that which can be your salvation, that which can be your calling, that which can be the way you become of service to your fellow man…. and woman. This lesson has given me the courage to become an advocate to combat stigma, discrimination and criminalization.
What is HIV Criminalization?
- HIV criminalization is the inappropriate use of one’s HIV status in a criminal proceeding
- “HIV-specific” statutes that punish the failure to disclose one’s HIV+ status prior to sex
- “HIV-specific” statutes that enhances sentencing for HIV+ people charged with certain crimes
- About 2/3 of U.S. States and Territories have such “HIV-specific” statutes
- More than 1,000 instances when HIV-specific charges have been filed
- HIV transmission rarely a factor (<10%)
- 25% of recent cases are for spitting, scratching and biting
- Condom or low viral load not a defense
- Every person with HIV one disgruntled ex-partner away from a courtroom
What We Now Know
- Discourages testing and cooperation with public health, does not reduce risky behavior (O’Bryne)
- Undercuts personal responsibility message, tells HIV negative people that HIV prevention isn’t their job
- Creates an illusion of safety for those negative or untested and encourages blame
- Reinforces stigma and misconceptions about real routes, risks and consequences of HIV transmission
Public health and the criminal justice system aren't coordinated. If our goal is to improve public health, then we need the law to reflect good public health practice and not contribute to the stigmatization of people with HIV as viral vectors, potential infectors and inherently dangerous.
In the past year we have spoken at or participated in more than 60 public events, ranging from professional conferences to community forums, worked with scores of journalists, created a support and advocacy network of people who have been prosecuted for HIV crimes, undertaken original research and supported local and statewide advocacy efforts. We see HIV criminalization as a public health concern, as well as an injustice to people with HIV, and to counteract or prevent the characterization of the issue as one defined by a liberal/conservative or partisan divide.
We have made significant progress in educating communities on how HIV criminalization, as a most extreme manifestation of stigma, is creating, not preventing, new HIV infections. We also have helped create tools and provide inspiration and guidance for the mobilization necessary to modernize statutes, combat stigma and discrimination and create an environment where it is safer for people with HIV to disclose their status.
This message, however, isn't about what happened to me. It is about how easily it could happen to any of you. It is about what is happening right now to increasing number of men and women with HIV all over this country and all over the world. The only people who will stop this epidemic of injustice are those of us who understand how insidious and destructive HIV stigma can be. If we do not make this issue a priority, if we do not lead, and if we do not demand change, it will never happen.
Support the REPEAL HIV Discrimination Act (H.R. 1843)
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