Author Topic: The dehumanizing effect of HIV criminalization  (Read 236 times)

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The dehumanizing effect of HIV criminalization
« on: August 13, 2018, 02:55:27 PM »
The dehumanizing effect of HIV criminalization
HIV criminalization laws disproportionately affect those already marginalized.

By Robert Suttle in Psychology and AIDS Exchange Newsletter | March 2017

For decades black communities have been disproportionally targeted and impacted by mass incarceration in the U.S. Since 1981, HIV has disproportionally affected black Americans due to social factors influencing HIV transmission — reflected in HIV criminalization — a form of state-sponsored discrimination that creates a viral underclass in the law, defining people living with HIV as an inherent danger to society. I see it simply as another way to incarcerate black people.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that black gay and bisexual men continue to comprise the largest single category of people living with HIV, and they are already disproportionately criminalized because of the color of their skin and their sexual orientation. Coming from socially and politically vulnerable communities, many of us face multiple intersections of stigma and discrimination, as well as a very tense history with public health and police, even before the emergence of HIV.

HIV may no longer be a death sentence, but for many black people and people from other disenfranchised communities, it is often a prison sentence. I found out the hard way, at 30 years old, when I was convicted under Louisiana’s so-called “Intentional Exposure to AIDS Virus” statute. I served six months in a Louisiana state prison for a consensual adult sexual relationship and it was never determined that I had transmitted HIV to anyone.

Louisiana, where I am from, has the highest incarceration rate in the nation. Black people, women, sex workers, men who have sex with men, people who use drugs, transgender women, migrants and LGBTQ youth — especially young black gay and bisexual men — are at a heightened risk of incarceration and at the highest risk of acquiring HIV. Both factors represent a terrible injustice, but when you add HIV criminalization, it becomes an injustice of historic proportions.

Growing up the oldest of six children and reared by my grandparents (my mother was 13 when I was born), they instilled in me faith, discipline, personal responsibility and humility. Yet, even as an educated young black man in his early 20s, I was not fully aware of certain behaviors or different sexual risk activities for HIV, or even how prevalent HIV was among African-Americans, nor did I personally know anyone living with HIV.

Driven to make something of my life, I graduated from Louisiana State University in Shreveport with a degree in business administration. After college I tried to join the Air Force to serve my country. During the enlistment physical, I tested positive for HIV and I was told I could not serve. Feeling numb, I just could not bring myself to share this burden with my family or anyone. I grew up keeping my personal matters private and that is how I handled my diagnosis until I was able to comprehend it fully. I did not think it was anyone else’s business, but I knew it was important to give some thought as to when and how to disclose.

I then embarked upon a career in the judicial system, working for the Louisiana Second Circuit Court of Appeals as an assistant clerk. I was doing well and on my way to becoming the first black male deputy clerk in that court. But after five years, that budding career — and life, as I knew it —abruptly ended. A former partner, with whom I had a contentious relationship, filed charges against me for allegedly not having disclosed my HIV positive status when we first met.

Over the next few months, there were harassing calls by my accuser to turn myself in, threats towards my friends, and a search warrant left at my home. Eventually the police arrested me at work in front of my co-workers. Everything personal about my life came out. It was a shock because until that moment, I was not actually out about my sexuality and had not openly disclosed my HIV status to my family or employer. But now everyone knew I was living with HIV and gay.

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 “Intentional Exposure to AIDS Virus” statute and was obligated to register as a sex offender for 15 years (the minimum level of registration in Louisiana). On my Louisiana driver’s license, underneath my photograph, it says in large red capital letters “sex offender.”

Today every person living with HIV in a state with laws that criminalize HIV is just one misunderstanding or disgruntled partner away from finding him or herself in a courtroom. A minor infraction of the law or negative encounter with law enforcement while HIV-positive could lead to a felony conviction, a lengthy prison sentence, public shaming and/or registration as a sex offender. My situation is not rare; there are hundreds of reported and unreported prosecutions in the South and all over the U.S. similar to mine or worse. My message is not just about what happened to me. It is about how easily HIV or criminalization of this disease could happen to anyone.

Most people living with HIV are nonviolent, law-abiding citizens who do not want to transmit the virus to anyone. But these laws typically do not require criminal intent, nor does it matter whether or not HIV was transmitted, or even if there was any chance of HIV transmission. Use of safe sex practices or having an undetectable viral load is not a defense. Even disclosing to one’s partner may not protect you from prosecution. 

Of those prosecuted, some have been convicted and did not have to serve time; others have been sentenced to decades in prison and/or are subject to sex offender registration and other restrictions. Some are gay, bisexual or heterosexual. Some are men who have sex with men, but may not identify as gay or bisexual. African-American men are disproportionately targeted. Some people who have been prosecuted, or threatened with prosecution, have become spokespeople or advocates and talked to the media or policy leaders; others have not wanted to, or have not been able, or ready to do that. Each situation is different, of course, but one thing we all share is the profoundly stigmatizing and traumatic effect of HIV criminalization and the harm it has done to our families, our futures and us.

Upon my release from prison in January 2011, I knew I needed a new life plan. I also knew that I had suffered a terrible criminal injustice. 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 men and women. 

I never expected to become a public advocate. I just wanted to be part of the solution to address this injustice. I have spoken at, or participated in hundreds of public events, ranging from professional conferences to community forums, shared my story with scores of journalists, coordinated a small support and advocacy network of people who have been victims of HIV criminalization, participated in community-based research, and I continue to support local and statewide advocacy efforts.

Over the last several years, it has been remarkable to witness the coming together of national networks of activists and advocates, particularly a coalition of people living with HIV, social justice groups, community organizers as well as public health, criminal justice, medical and scientific professionals, political and public policy leaders. I have participated with allies from across the country for the first-of-its-kind HIV is Not a Crime National Training Academy
, a three-day workshop and practical training on strategies and best practices for changing laws that criminalize people with HIV. The training includes skills building with an emphasis on grassroots organizing, advocacy, coalition building and campaign planning, which empowers participants by providing concrete tools and resources to work on state-level strategic planning.

We can prevent HIV by reducing stigma or we can prosecute HIV by locking up those of us who are living with it. But we cannot do both. We need to make sure we take the path that will improve public health and deliver on the promise of justice to every person, including those of us who are living with HIV.

Robert Suttle is the assistant director of the Sero Project, a network of people living with HIV and allies fighting for freedom from stigma and injustice. He oversees the community outreach and education and coordinates Sero’s HIV Criminalization Survivors Network.

Definition of Hats aka "Conflict of Interest" Statement: Mary-Jane is Editor of Perth Gay News, The Media Annuncio of the Perth Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence of the Abbey of the Black Swan & Editor @ HIV Institute of WA.

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The dehumanizing effect of HIV criminalization
« on: August 13, 2018, 02:55:27 PM »