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Stigma

Award-Winning Journalist Todd Heywood #12 of Our 75 Most Amazing HIV-Positive People of 2016

todd-heywood

The victim of a hate crime, he was almost arrested because of it — and HIV criminalization laws.

What happens when one of the country’s leading investigative journalists — who educates people on breaking down the stigma HIV-positive people face in society — finds himself the victim not only of a horrendous crime, but of a criminal justice system that often blames the victim? 

Todd Heywood found out the hard way.

Heywood has made a career out of breaking down stigma, uncovering injustice, and seeking to overturn discriminatory laws. As a journalist who has written for numerous publications, including the American Independent News Network, Between the Lines, Pridesource.com, and Lansing City Pulse, Heywood broke stories about white nationalism, oil spills, and labor violations, in addition to covering HIV and the LGBT community. In addition, Heywood has been one of the country’s few HIV-positive elected officials, the communications director for Michigan Equality, an educator, and a theater actor. 

Earlier this year, Heywood appeared in Simon Stephens’ Motortown, with Michael Boxleitner, son of actors Melissa Gilbert and Bruce Boxleitner. (In character, Heywood is pictured with Boxleitner above.)

His lectures are extremely popular on the university circuit in his home state of Michigan. Grace Wojcik of Oakland University says “It has been my pleasure to host Todd on-campus for various lectures including ‘Viral Apartheid: The Rise of HIV Exceptionalism,’ and ‘Raw Deal: Barebacking in America.’ To this day, my students still rave about Todd’s lectures.” 

Marilyn Preston, of Grand Valley State University similarly raves about Heywood, who she invites to speak to her students about HIV policy, criminalization, and stigma. “His discussions always lead to a change in attitude and increased knowledge for my students,” Preston says. “[He] makes strong connections with my students, getting them to think more critically about the ways in which homophobia, transphobia, politics, and sociological changes impact their own lives — and how they too can make a difference in terms of advocating for, and supporting, those with HIV.”

The award winning journalist also excels at weaving his personal experiences into a story without making it seem all about him. In his 2014 reporting on the overturning of Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban, Heywood recalled how he had found a gold band in the Christmas gifts his former partner never had a chance to give him; his partner died of AIDS complications in 1996. Heywood concluded: “Tomorrow, 18 years too late, I can finally visit David’s grave and say ‘Yes. I will marry you.’”

Recently Heywood became part of a news story in a way he would never have imagined after he was brutally attacked in his own home.

Heywood had invited two men — who he’d met via Craigslist — to come to his house for sex. Instead, they forced him to lie face down, handcuffed his hands behind his back, and began to beat him mercilessly.

“This is how I’m going to die,” Heywood would later remember thinking

The two men then ransacked his apartment, stealing everything of value: including all of Heywood’s work-related equipment and his television. Pushed into the kitchen and ordered to get on his knees, Heywood feared the worst. Instead, he was momentarily left alone and was able to make his escape, hands still cuffed behind his back.

After the men were gone, he realized they had also stolen thousands of dollars-worth of HIV medications. Unlike some victims, Heywood was determined to report the assault and press charges. Two days after the attack, Heywood says he met with a Detective Johnson from the Lansing, Michigan Police Department for a victim interview and to look at photo line ups. As they talked, Heywood shared that his medication had been stolen. 

“Did they know?” The detective interrupted. 

As someone who has reported on HIV criminalization, Heywood was aware that this kind of question can be far from innocent or innocuous. Failing to disclose one’s HIV status prior to sex can be a crime. Heywood believes Detective Johnson was attempting to determine whether Heywood, the victim of a brutal attack, had also committed a crime. 

Heywood had disclosed, and says, “I told him that. Had I not done so, it’s possible that I myself could have faced prosecution. That disclosure could have cut the other way, as well. The defense could have made my HIV the justification for the attack.” 

A week after their assault on Heywood, the men involved reportedly admitted to investigators that they deliberately targeted “fucking faggots on Craigslist,” because gay men were “sick” and “would not report it to the police.” 

Heywood had not been their first victim, but he was determined to be their last. 

“At the end of the day,” he says, “just like with prevention — protecting yourself is a key starting point. That means being aware of who you are meeting, where you are meeting them, and what is going on around you.”

The former politician says we can’t stop there.

“It also means engaging in the political process,” he says. “That means talking to candidates. It means talking to activists. It means talking to local lawmakers about how laws need to change to help prevent and punish hate crimes and lessen stigma. As a culture, we also have an obligation to call out all forms of oppression when we see it. Whether that’s in person or on social media. Social shaming is a powerful and important tool that can help deter some anti-gay bigots and challenge stigma.”

Having already covered his own hate-motivated assault, Heywood adds, “The story will also, obviously, become part of the conversations that I have about the downside of Michigan’s HIV criminalization law.”

In June, the two assailants — charged with assault, unlawful imprisonment, and robbery —  accepted a plea deal and were sentenced to 17 to 55 years in prison.

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Savas Abadsidis

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