“More women in the United States died last year from cervical cancer caused by HPV than died of AIDS, but there are no HPV-specific criminal statues, nor is there an HPV criminalization phenomenon. The difference has everything to do with HIV’s association with an ‘outlaw’ sexuality, anal intercourse, gay men, people of color, and people who use drugs.” – Sean Strub in his 2014 memoir, Body Counts
The second HIV is Not a Crime training academy takes place May 17 to the 20th in Huntsville, Alabama, educating advocates from around the country on HIV criminalization laws and strategizing on how to repeal inappropriate and unjust laws.
If you think HIV criminalization is about punishing people for willfully—or even recklessly—passing HIV on to a sex partner, the easiest way to understand the horrors that have been committed under these laws is by watching the short video “HIV is Not a Crime,” in which three individuals tell their incredible stories. (Go to youtube.com/watch?v=iB-6blJjbjc; available with Spanish subtitles.)
The laws fall into the department of, perhaps, unintended—and cruel—consequences. People living with HIV are being humiliated and legally punished even when there has been no risk of transmission. This not only unjustly penalizes people, but fuels misinformation about HIV transmission, damaging public health in the process, particularly in media reports.
Where true harm has been committed, laws already exist to punish perpetrators. To make laws HIV-specific opens the door to abuse of people living with the virus based solely on stigma.
As part of a national, self-empowerment movement, HIV is Not a Crime II will also look at the ways that the criminal justice system unfairly affects particular communities, to help mobilize common efforts against practices targeting the most vulnerable people.
The Sero Project, the organization which started HIV is Not a Crime, is “a network of people with HIV and allies fighting for freedom from stigma and injustice.” Sero works to empower people living with HIV and their allies to tell their stories and to organize for legal change, among other goals.
Sean Strub, founder of POZ magazine (and a politics wonk who became the first openly HIV-positive person to run for Congress), founded the Sero Project. Combating HIV criminalization lies at the heart of the project.
“My hope for HIV is Not a Crime II is that it will energize and inspire more grassroots advocacy to combat HIV criminalization overall and to create closer linkages with other movements working for penal system reform,” said Strub. “We need to end the war on drugs, decriminalize sex work, combat bias and stigma, and make the promise of justice a reality for those who have been victimized by a system of over-incarceration and control.
“Sero,” he added, “organizes people living with HIV, creating supportive networks, providing practical training, skills, and other resources so that we can be leaders in these inter-connected movements.”
While Sero, and its co-organizer for this year’s training, the Positive Women’s Network – USA (PWN-USA), labor to build a grassroots movement with legally savvy advocates, the organization provides some basic advice on its website on how people living with HIV can protect themselves against unjust prosecution. Visit seroproject.com.
Noted PWN-USA in a press release, “The training academy will convene in the Deep South — the region most heavily affected by not only HIV, but many other symptoms of a history steeped in injustice and trauma.”
Said the group’s executive director, Naina Khanna, “PWN-USA, a national membership organization of women living with HIV, is deeply committed to issues of HIV criminalization because we see the way that criminalization and the criminal justice system intersects with our constituency and impacts access to health care, health outcomes, and human rights overall of people living with HIV. Our main hope for the training academy is that we will continue to build a vibrant, accountable, and inclusive movement, a grassroots movement as led by the communities most impacted by criminalization and policing, and be able to repeal some of these laws. We want to look at the intersection of HIV criminalization and racial injustice and policing practices, and the criminalization of sex work, as well as drug use policies and how drug users are kept criminalized.
“Our focus is the way all these systems of criminalization come together and building meaningful coalitions at the grassroots level that address these policies more holistically,” Khanna said.
Plenary and session topics at HIV is Not a Crime II will include:
- Intersections of race, gender, and sexuality in HIV criminalization
- Centering the rights of sex workers and other over-criminalized groups
- Updates and tips from active state-based campaigns against HIV criminalization
- Supporting the leadership of people living with HIV in the movement to end HIV criminalization
Go to hivisnotacrime.com.
“There is no more extreme manifestation of stigma than when government enshrines it in the law.” – Sean Strub, Body Counts