HIV Is Not a Crime and Me

The indisputable fact that you can’t pass on the virus when you are on effective therapy and have an undetectable viral load (U=U) means it’s time to update or do away with these laws altogether.

This past June I had the opportunity to attend my first HIV Is Not A Crime training academy (HINAC 3) in Indianapolis. I have wanted to do a deeper dive and learn more about HIV criminalization for some time, and this was my chance. Plus the conference was in the neighboring state of Indiana so it was just a short drive away. I also saw it as an opportunity to learn what is happening on the ground level with efforts to decriminalize HIV not only in the United States, but also around the world, and to introduce myself to other networks of people living with HIV.

As has been pointed out time and again, and you will read about in this issue, the laws have not caught up with the science when it comes to criminalization of HIV. The indisputable fact that you can’t pass on the virus when you are on effective therapy and have an undetectable viral load (U=U) means it’s time to update or do away with these laws altogether. Anyone who intentionally tries to infect another person (which is rare and represents only a fraction of the people who end up getting prosecuted under these discriminatory laws) is already covered under non-HIV specific laws.

“U=U has opened up this whole new discourse on reproductive rights,” Naina Khana of Positive Women’s Network tweeted out during the meeting. “Because we don’t just have the right to reproduce, we have the right to have pleasurable sex.” Read more about U=U in our AIDS 2018 coverage beginning on page 40.

In this issue Sean Strub, founder of the Sero Project which organizes the biennial conference, talks about how Sero came about, and about the power that comes from networks of people living with HIV when they join together. “Our strength comes from each other, and working with networks like The Reunion Project [for long-term survivors of HIV],” he told the audience. Robert Suttle talks more about the work they are doing on page 16.

I had, and still have, much to learn. Mayo Schreiber, Jr., deputy director at the Center for HIV Law and Policy, pointed out how in the state of Missouri if you kill two people while driving drunk, you’re convicted of a felony and sentenced to 5–15 years, and if you expose someone to HIV (with no transmission required), you serve the same amount of time: 5–15 years.

Edwin Bernard of HIV Justice Network said during his presentation that the U.S. used to be the world leader in HIV decriminalization, and now “they are the world leader against HIV decriminalization.” Read more about the expert consensus statement on HIV criminalization released at the Amsterdam conference on page 46.

Ariel, an articulate young man from Honduras who attends college in Florida, described how he was threatened with HIV criminalization at his university and charged under Title IX for sexual misconduct after a man he was dating filed a complaint—despite there being no risk of transmission.

There was an incredibly moving and powerful criminalization survivors’ panel with a call to action. As one person pointed out, the impact lasts past prosecution, conviction and even incarceration—we need a focus on expungement and removal from the sex offender registry as much as a focus on repeal.

“What does it look like to embody a sense of belonging in ourselves?” asked Toni Michelle-Williams, who appears on the cover of this issue. “How do we let go of our shame, so others can walk beside us? Invest in Black Trans Leadership!” she declared.

One of the most moving parts of the conference for me was when Sero board member Kerry Thomas called in during a plenary session to talk about his experience as an advocate behind bars. According to Sero’s website Thomas is serving two consecutive 15-year sentences for having consensual sex, with condoms and an undetectable viral load, with a female partner without transmitting HIV, and has become active as an educator and advocate within the walls of the Idaho correctional facility where he is housed.

On the three-hour drive back to Chicago I was still processing the previous four days at the conference in Indianapolis. I began to feel a shift in the way I look at the world and my activism. As I wrote in my Facebook post at the time, “We are in an incredibly difficult and challenging time, but to know that hard-working advocates and policy makers are making significant advances and changes, and developing a strategy and a movement to make change happen, gives me hope. And to begin to try to understand how that, and all my work, absolutely has to happen within a framework of social and racial justice, has me reinvigorated. Thank you to all of those who helped make this happen, my heart and my mind have been opened.”

In the empowering words of HIV criminalization survivor Monique, “HIV criminalization did not stop me from anything my heart and mind was willing to do!”

Take care of yourself, and each other.