The criminalization of HIV may have made sense in the early days of the epidemic, when the disease seemed unstoppable and AIDS-panic had politicians imagining AIDS-wielding boogey men infecting citizens and police officers acting like activists’ saliva was more threatening than a AK-47.
Those days are long gone, but unfortunately, relics of the time persist, both in on-going stigma, and in outdated laws that can — and do — still send people with HIV to prison for decades, even when they don’t transmit HIV to anyone.
As the organizers of the HIV is Not a Crime Training Academy report, “Forty-four states have prosecuted people living with HIV for perceived exposure or transmission; most states permit prosecution even when no transmission has occurred, and actual risk is negligible.”
While many states make it illegal not to disclose one’s HIV-status prior to having sex, others outlaw behaviors such as biting and spitting (an HIV-positive Texas man is currently serving a 35-year sentence for spitting).
These laws don’t differentiate whether or not transmission occurs, nor do they care about facts related to scientific evidence around viral suppression including that people who are undetectable are very unlikely to transmit HIV, even when not wearing a condom.
In Idaho, Kerry Thomas (who spoke from prison at the last HIV is Not a Crime and is scheduled to do so again this year) is serving 30 years for allegedly not disclosing his HIV status to a partner. Actually, the statute outlaws, "transferring or attempting to transfer any of his bodily fluid, to-wit: semen and/or saliva by genital to genital and/or oral to genital contact, without disclosing his infection of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).”
Thomas was convicted even though he used a condom, was also taking medications to maintain his undetectable viral load, and his accuser hasn’t acquired HIV. Still his appeal was recently denied.
“These laws make disclosure harder,” argues Monique Howell-Moree in a press release. “Because we so fear the punishment, we just keep things bottled up inside.” Howell-Moree was prosecuted under the military’s non-disclosure laws and would have faced 8-12 years if convicted. “I didn’t know the best way to disclose...Had I had the support and knowledge that I have now back then, I would most definitely have done things differently.”
Co-organized by SERO Project and Positive Women’s Network-USA, the Training Academy comes on the heels of a major victory in Colorado, where dedicated efforts to modernize the law were led by Barb Cardell (one of Plus magazine’s Most Amazing HIV-Positive People of 2016).
Thrilled about the success, Cardell says, “The law now focuses on proven methods of protecting public health — like education and counseling — while discarding the language of criminalization, which actually discourages testing, treatment and disclosure. This law represents real progress for Coloradans, regardless of their HIV status.”
Cardell joins other activists sharing lessons they’ve learned and providing training to others this week at the HIV is Not a Crime Training Academy in Huntville, Alabama.
Keynote speakers include Mary Fisher, who bravely spoke at the 1992 Republican National Convention with a speech about her experience as a woman living with HIV; Joel Goldman, managing director of the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation; and Colorado state senator Pat Steadman, who sponsored the Colorado bill that just passed, repealing HIV criminalization in the state.
Breakout session will explore best practices for changing policy, and address the intersections of HIV criminalization with efforts to criminalize black men, trans women, sex workers, mentally ill and substance users.
“The goals of the Training Academy go beyond giving advocates the tools and know-how they need to change policy,” explained Naina Khanna, executive director of PWN-USA, in a statement to the press. She said the HIV is Not a Crime conference hopes to “deepening our collective understanding of the impact of these laws and why they are enforced the way they are. We hope participants will leave better prepared to effect change by thinking differently, forging new partnerships and ensuring communities most heavily impacted by criminalization are in leadership in this movement.”
The HIV Is Not a Crime II National Training Academy is taking place this week, May 17-20, 2016, at the University of Alabama, Huntsville.