I was born and raised in the suburbs of Atlanta, and I went to Savannah State University. I became very politically active, working on different political campaigns in Georgia and Virginia,. Four years ago, that political involvement led me to Chicago, where I was serving as the advocacy chair of the Chaicago BTAN (Black Treatment Advocates Network). I now work for The Black AIDS Institute based in the South. I recently gave several presentations on HIV criminalization, focused on asking these questions: Why is HIV criminalized at all, and how should we address the intersections of HIV criminalization overall?
We have to think about why people are criminalized. We have to think about why we think HIV is a crime. I believe that most times it is because people want retribution. It’s this whole, “You hurt me, and I am going to get you back” mentality. But barring instances of rape and sexual violence [for which people should be held accountable], we are still sending folks to prison for this. We have educational programs, we have BTAN, we have PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis], we have so much to help prevent people from contracting the virus. With all of that, why are we still sending people to prison in the first place? How does it help people living with HIV or AIDS to heal to send a person who may have given someone HIV to jail? How does that affect individuals and communities as a whole?
To understand the HIV/AIDS struggle in the Black community is to understand the racial-justice struggle we have in America. We have to talk about matters of justice, how Black people engage and are engaged with the judicial system and the police force. We are going to have to talk about decriminalizing Black people, that being Black is not a crime. We are going to have to talk about police training and cultural understanding.
Internally, if we are really going to talk about HIV/AIDS in our communities, we are going to have to talk about sex, how we have sex and all of the ways that we engage in sex. At times, the AIDS movement seems a little timid to really talk about it.
But more than sex, if we are going to really educate our people about AIDS and HIV, we are also going to have to discuss health education or, in most instances, the lack thereof. We also have to understand the . . . health-care system. We have to have real health equity.
It’s one thing to make the blanket statement, “We need to talk about HIV/AIDS.” Everyone can get behind that. You don’t have to be Black to agree to that. It’s another thing in the discussion with the Black community to boldly claim that there is something wrong with entire systems that affect us daily. If we are going to win the overall fight against HIV and AIDS, we are going to need to address entire systems.
People are less inclined to have those discussions. But they need to be had. If anything is going to get better for our people and our nation overall, these are the kinds of discussions we are going to need.
There are solutions. We have to gain an understanding of the history of criminalization, starting with when those laws were put on books and until today. Then we need to repeal those laws. They only add stigma and put the onus on the person who has HIV. People have to break down their own internal biases, such as believing that HIV is only an LGBTQ fight and not a human fight. There has to be understanding of how those laws have negatively impacted our community. We have to work together with lawyers, legislators and the community.
I am working so that no one can be criminalized for HIV again in the state of Illinois.
Timidity is not an option when you’re fighting HIV/AIDS.
As told to Whitney Alese, a writer and blogger whose work has been featured in BuzzFeed and other publications.