Advocates assemble in Atlanta

No sooner had he gotten home to New York from the international AIDS conference in Amsterdam than Robert Suttle jetted down to Atlanta to be photographed with fellow HIV criminalization advocates Erik Paulk, Nina Martinez, and Toni-Michelle Williams for the cover of POSITIVELY AWARE.

The 39-year-old Shreveport native has been living with HIV for 15 years; for him, HIV criminalization is a personal issue.

“My life was nearly destroyed by a grossly unjust HIV prosecution and conviction,” he says. “I served six months in a Louisiana state prison under an HIV non-disclosure charge.”

As assistant director of the Sero Project, Suttle coordinates a nationwide network of HIV criminalization survivors, and makes the case for why criminalization affects everyone living with HIV.

“Every person living with HIV is just one misunderstanding or disgruntled ex-partner away from finding him or herself in a courtroom,” he says. “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.”

“Georgia is a state in which 54,000 people living with HIV are my neighbors,” says Nina Martinez, 35, a steering committee member of the Georgia HIV Justice Coalition. Martinez acquired HIV through a blood transfusion when she was six weeks old. “Our state’s HIV non-disclosure statute makes it a felony crime for me not to disclose my HIV positive status before engaging in private consensual conduct, without regard to whether or not measures are taken to prevent HIV exposure and transmission; without harming anyone, or intending to harm anyone, I could face up to 10 years of imprisonment.

“This has consequences,” Martinez adds. “Women living with HIV like myself are at increased risk of violence, sexual coercion, and can be trapped in unsafe circumstances because of HIV non-disclosure laws that are rife for abuse.”

Eric Paulk, 38, is an HIV policy organizer for the LGBT advocacy organization Georgia Equality. “Black communities and other marginalized communities are more vulnerable to being victimized by the criminal justice system than other communities,” he says.

Paulk points out that laws criminalizing HIV don’t take into account the medical science surrounding HIV, and have been ineffective in containing the virus. “The CDC acknowledges that there is ‘effectively no risk’ of sexually transmitting HIV when on treatment and undetectable,” he points out. “These laws have failed to accomplish their intent of reducing the prevalence of HIV. In fact, there have been no significant public health benefits or reduction in the HIV epidemic—if anything, these laws have exacerbated the epidemic.  As such, current practice is bad law and worse policy.”

While the focus has been to “modernize” HIV criminalization laws—that is, replacing current statutes or reducing penalties from a felony to a less serious misdemeanor, Toni-Michelle Williams wants to see these laws removed altogether. “When we modernize laws we leave loopholes for the folks who are most marginalized and impacted by them,” she says.

The Atlanta-born 27-year-old is a leadership development and accountability coach at the Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative (SNaP Co). “Transgender women suffer from profiling, exposing them to sexual harassment and undignified searches that could result in an arrest if they are carrying condoms,” she says.

Williams pointed out the need for change. “Criminalization of HIV has made it harder for people [living with HIV] to seek help when they are the victim of a crime, because they risk being arrested. We must challenge the state and utilize its resources to take care of the people directly impacted.”

An HIV and civil rights activist himself, photographer Johnnie Ray Kornegay III produced the shoot and photographed the cover. Kornegay is founder of Staticc Art & Life, an arts company. Special thanks to the Center for Civil and Human Rights museum in downtown Atlanta, which served as the location.

More information

The Sero Project:

Georgia Equality:

Georgia HIV Justice Coalition:

Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative:

Center for Civil and Human Rights:

Staticc Art & Life: