The “HIV is Not a Crime II Training Academy” occurred in mid-May in Huntsville, Ala. It attracted 292 participants from 34 states and Mexico, Canada, Great Britain, and Germany.
This article is based on interviews with three of those participants: Tami Haught, (SERO Project Organizing, and Training Coordinator), Mark S. King, (activist and writer), and David Poole (Director of Legislative Affairs, AIDS Healthcare Foundation). All three spoke as individuals rather than for their organizations. Their comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Hilary Clinton sent a video in which she stated her support for modernizing outdated HIV criminalization laws. The participants responded enthusiastically to this video.
The Training Academy encouraged the formation of state specific groups to modernize HIV criminalization laws. A Florida specific group has emerged from the Training Academy to modernize these laws in Florida.
Haught helped to organize the Training Academy. According to her, attendance had almost doubled since the first Training Academy. About one-quarter of the participants identified as HIV negative. People of color formed a majority, with African-Americans as the largest racial group. Although most participants were male, 8 percent of participants identified with a gender other than male or female.
Two activities provided outlets for creativity and networking. Mexican participants created an altar for people to remember and honor their dead. The International Community of Women Living with HIV created banners to be carried to the International AIDS Conference this July.
HIV criminalization reform arouses a passion that inspires many activists. King described the Training Academy as having “really energized AIDS activists, including people, like me who have been around for a while.”
Poole stressed the daunting work that lies ahead. “It's going to take a lot of effort on a localized and statewide basis throughout the country to get these reforms to occur.”
Iowa and Colorado have already modernized their HIV criminalization laws. In Iowa, Democrats control the Senate, and Republicans the House. In Colorado, Republicans control both houses of the legislature. King praised advocates for their diligent and carefully planned work with conservative legislatures. He said, “The advocates in those states made the case that these laws invaded privacy, failed to stop the epidemic, and cost both lives and money.”
Directly addressing advocates on the importance of a non-partisan approach, Poole argued that “You should never go into any kind of environment where you are trying to find allies, assuming that you know what they look like and who they are.”
Poole cited Florida State Senator Rene Garcia (R-Hialeah), as “the best, most specific example that I can give. Garcia identified himself as an ally.” Poole believes that Garcia wants to “modernize Florida's HIV criminalization laws in the context of criminal prosecution.”
“Criminalization reform efforts are growing across the U.S.,” Haught said, discussing the future of modernizing HIV criminalization laws. “Criminalization reform efforts are growing across the U.S.” People have begun to see modernizing HIV criminalization laws as necessary to reduce new infections, to protect rights, and to improve the health of people living with HIV. Haught stressed the importance of creating coalitions with other social, racial and economic justice movements in each state.
King noted those with the most to lose drive HIV advocacy. “Right now, the people with the most to lose are women and people of color. They are the populations that have been left behind, as we gay men have got what we needed and moved-on.” King noted that while this shift was necessary, it was not always easy. “It often happened in ways that made white gay men, like me, feel uncomfortable, and that's going to have to be OK with me.”
King argues that this discomfort comes from making racism and privilege visible. He continued, “Asking a white person to see their own privilege is like asking a fish in the sea to see the water that they're soaking in. That privilege, as a white man, plays itself out in so many ways that I'm not even aware of.”
“In many cases, HIV criminalization simply extends racism and homophobia,” King bluntly charged. “Imagine a Black gay man with HIV sitting in front of a judge or jury, accused of failing to disclose his status. Now, tell me that the judge or jury has no prejudice toward that defendant based on his HIV status, his race, and his sexuality. Our judges and juries think that he should not be having sex at all.”
King reported that the intersection of gay sexuality and Black race “has everything to do with how these laws are being applied. We cannot discuss HIV criminalization without understanding how racism, above all else, has to do with our criminal justice system.”
According to King, these laws have a “very visceral stench of justice and vengeance on the surface, when you consider what these people have been accused of.” Those prosecuted, however, have the most difficulty in disclosing, and the least amount of protection.
King emphasized that other laws already cover malicious transmission. “When is it ever acceptable to have a law that prosecutes people with a virus, regardless of their behavior? If someone maliciously goes around trying to infect other people and do harm to them, we have laws for that.” King challenged the need for HIV specific laws. “We don't need laws specific to HIV. These laws should not exist.”
King repeated a story that a transgender woman told about her rape. “She couldn’t disclose her status to her rapist, because she thought he would kill her. She was terrified to go to the police, because she did not tell her rapist that she was positive. She felt that she could be prosecuted.”
According to King, the prosecution of women is another instance of “taking advantage of vulnerable populations.” Women have the least ability to disclose, as they are “most at risk for violence, loss of job, loss of family, and loss of physical safety.”
King reported that HIV criminalization laws have created a new type of intimate partner abuse. One partner threatens the other. “If you break up with me, I will call the cops, and tell them that you're positive and didn't tell me.’” Even if the accusing partner changes his mind, he cannot take it back. The abused partner may well have disclosed, but it then becomes a question of credibility. Haught pointed out the irony that states adopted these laws to “protect” women from infected male partners. Now, however, women living with HIV are at risk of abuse because of these laws.
King described HIV criminalization as “the defining moral HIV issue of our time. The system has no problem throwing some diseased fags into jail. Now, we got treatment, we've got prevention, and we've even got PrEP. But just because our gay community is doing well, doesn't mean we should turn our backs on people who are being prosecuted under these completely irrational laws.”
To find out information about HIV criminalization, please visit, http://seroproject.com.
To read Mark King’s blog about the Training Academy, please visit, http://marksking.com/my-fabulous-disease/video-hiv-not-crime-ii-training-academy/.
To view Clinton’s video, please visit, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bThbZwZQmq0.
Follow Sean McShee on Twitter @SeanMcShee