Choosing your words: Kamaria Laffrey, co-executive director of The SERO Project, talks about her strategy in the fight to modernize and repeal outdated laws that criminalize HIV

What’s the difference between HIV criminalization and HIV decriminalization?

Kamaria Laffrey: Decriminalizing HIV is the goal. We don't want people criminalized for their HIV status. But The SERO Project, specifically, when we're working with coalitions and we're talking with legislators, especially in conservative climates, we really don't use that word, decriminalization. We start off with talking about modernizing and aligning things with progress—we don't even use aligning with science. We’ll say, aligning with the progress that we’ve made since the ’80s. Because a lot of the conversations will start off with, do you know anybody, or has anyone in your life passed away from HIV/AIDS?, because there’s always some relative that no one talked about, who died from something. And so we frame it to put them there—Look how far we’ve come, you don't even hear about it anymore, but I’m a person living with HIV diagnosed in 2003. And so we talk about—See that progress we’ve made, but our laws don’t align with that, and people are facing criminalization based on their health status. And then we start breaking down the hard facts. As we talk about strategy, depending on the relationship, we’ll mention that decriminalization is the ultimate goal. That’s kind of the context of how SERO Project operates around language and messaging, and that's an example of a pathway to have a conversation with legislators. 

We have a toolkit that helps advocates navigate language around decriminalizing, replacing, repealing and modernizing—our SPJI advocates have worked to inform the legal literacy for their legislative and community engagement strategy efforts. 

So, it’s a matter of using the right word in the right situation or relationship.

Yeah. I have a training I do where I say: Agree or disagree—Racial justice should be at the center point of HIV criminalization conversations. Most people normally would say, yeah, racial justice is an important issue. Yeah, I agree. But as a Black woman, I’m not going to walk into a legislator’s office and start telling them hard facts about the Black community with HIV, with criminalization first. I’m not leading with race first—specifically in conservative spaces. That’s just a personal choice. Because of the angry Black woman stereotype, I always try to feel the room first. When I realize the audience I have is going to be receptive, I bring in those points—Did you know that your district has 47% Black Americans living there? Do you know that 30% of those Black Americans are vulnerable to HIV?—some statistics like that. I bring it around after I do the whole level setting—Here’s who I am, beyond being a Black woman, here’s what I’m talking about—because I usually have other people with me in these meetings. That’s just one example—feeling the room, having the relationship, hearing how they're leaning in or not leaning in. Also, you’re usually talking to a congressional staffer, and sometimes they’re more clued into what you’re saying—they read between the lines. Sometimes they’ll start asking questions that help prompt you to say the real thing that you actually came here to say, which is we want to repeal this. And then they'll they’ll dial you back and say, well, Representative so-and-so has supported this, this and this; let us look at your language, and see if it's something that they align with, or see if they have any questions and then we go from there.

How is the wording or the vocabulary different when you're talking to community or with the public?

For me, when I'm talking to a room of people who are allies and people living with HIV, the language is no sugarcoating—decriminalize HIV. We want it repealed. We want it gone. Then I explain that when you are out and you’re doing this education, I circle back to look at the political climate. Most states have picked up a ‘modernize’ strategy. Illinois, for example, started out with modernize. It ultimately became repeal. So it's not impossible, it just took them a long time. When Virginia modernized their laws, they knew they had to do it that summer of 2021 because their governor was going to change. If they didn't do it, then they were going to have challenges they weren’t resourced to address for the change they were seeking. 

What do you tell people who say, Oh, this is incrementalism. We need change now?

Depends on who’s saying it and where they’re coming from. But I get it. It's frustrating. No one wants piecemeal change, especially when you are witnessing lives being impacted. Like, somebody just got charged yesterday, or, somebody could be out right now, but their state did something crazy. I usually just ask folks to trust the community and help us amplify the work that we’re doing and help us think outside the box. In the room [during the conference], we were talking about innovation. I’m down for innovation, because sometimes when you’re in a silo and you’re the only one looking at something over and over again, I need that voice of like, I’m sick of this. Let's try something else. And I’m like, Okay, how do you see this? What looks different? And if it doesn't feel realistic, then I’m like, Okay, let’s talk about that. And if they do end up bringing in this big box idea, then I start looking, okay, how do we get this funded? How do we get this mobilized? Who needs to be organizing this, and what is the expected outcome from that? So those are the things I think of when people are like, we don't want incremental change. I don’t like it either. But also, this is the system that we’re part of. I want to burn it all down, to be perfectly honest, but you also have to be building a community that will be sustained if you do decide to burn it all down. Or if something else happens and your strategy collapses, have you built community to be able to survive that? And if you haven't been doing that, then incremental changes are what you have to be doing.

Why should people care about HIV criminalization?

If you care about marginalized communities, if you care about housing, if you care about access to treatment, if you care about actually ending HIV and not having people prosecuted for a health status, where no other health status has this level of federal legislation attached to it, then you care about HIV criminalization. You don't have to know me to care, but you care.