What happens when a hookup you had at 22 turns into a criminal case years later that threatens to send you to prison for three decades? If you’re Sanjay Johnson, you fight back.
“Becoming an instant visible HIV activist took time,” he admits. “It was scary at first. Having my mug shot and charges plastered permanently over Facebook and other internet outlets was hurtful.”
Three years after he met another young man on a gay hookup app, Johnson recalls, police came to his front door “with a complaint citing myself as ‘knowing and willfully exposing another to HIV.’” The case has been winding its way through the Arkansas courts ever since. Now a series of motions and delays stand between Johnson and a prison cell, as he attempts to explain the science of HIV transmission in a region far more focused on stigma and outdated ideas about the supposed “death sentence” of living with HIV.
“I had to find strength mentally,” Johnson notes, adding that he eventually realized “I can take control of the narrative to show that I’m not this monster or evil person that I was pictured as. It gave me courage to educate and correct [untruths] about HIV and AIDS and HIV criminalization.”
His trial is currently set for February 26, 2019, but his attorney has “filed a second motion for dismissal with the new evidence” that includes the new wording from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that those whose viral loads are undetectable cannot transmit HIV.
Living with the virus since 2012, the Little Rock, Ark., resident was undetectable within a week of that one-night stand, something his medical records back up. He’s hopeful that he can keep pushing his case as far as he needs to in order to be fully exonerated. The 25-year old artist and photographer admits this year has been a tough one.
“My journey with HIV has been dealing with isolation and fear of rejection,” Johnson says. “[From] coming out slowly to being bold speaking out.”
He says he’s learned that family is important, but “you get to pick” who they are. Anti-criminalization activists have rallied around Johnson, with support from organizations like Cornelius Mabin’s Arkansas RAPPS, the Black United Leadership Institute, and the Sero Project.
These agencies are providing support for what his attorney, Cheryl Maples, has repeatedly said: “Sanjay Johnson could not have passed on and exposed anyone... therefore, he cannot be guilty of this particular statute.” Arkansas is one of 34 states that have HIV-specific criminal statues on the books.
Still, Johnson is hopeful his case can change both the laws and public opinion around criminalization of HIV. This year, along with his art and photography, which is popping up all over social media in the South, he admits, he’s proud “that I’m still fighting even when I feel alone.”
He’s using his art as “an outlet to me for therapeutic reasons,” he says, as his 2019 resolution is to acquire “mental, emotional, and physical freedom… for people living with HIV and also those fighting to decriminalize HIV.”
Many of the biggest challenges he faces are what he sees as the those anyone living with HIV deals with: “Fear and stigma.” That won’t stop him, he insists. Johnson has continued to update his followers and fellow activists on his every mood, challenge, and court directive. The reason he does it is simply smart thinking, though.
“No one will control the narrative of me,” he says. No one but him. He makes sure the information in the public sphere is correct and as de-stigmatized as possible, “because I am the source.”