As part of an ongoing effort to raise awareness about the impact the HIV/AIDS epidemic is having on Black lives, the Black Treatment Advocates Network (BTAN) in Maryland hosted the program “Exploring the Criminalization of HIV.” The AHF (AIDS Healthcare Foundation) and the Center for Black Excellence also contributed to the event.
HIV/AIDS service providers, community members, members of advocacy groups, and representatives from the University of Maryland and University of Baltimore gathered at the state Prevention and Health Promotion Administration in Baltimore to learn more about laws that criminalize HIV. There are currently 67 HIV-specific criminal laws in 33 states and two U.S. territories. Not only do the laws not reflect the current scientific knowledge about how HIV is transmitted, but they also increase stigma and undermine public health efforts to end the epidemic.
“As with most disparities around criminalization, HIV criminalization laws primarily are targeted towards communities of color and other vulnerable populations, like LGBTQ individuals,” said BTAN Maryland co-chair Aaron Davis, a program manager with the Maryland Department of Health. “With an ever changing landscape in our justice system, both on the local and federal level, we felt it was important that our community learn the impact of current laws and what they can do to possibly change them and public perception around them.”
HIV criminalization laws vary by jurisdiction, a fact that many people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) may not know.
“When you do travel outside of Baltimore or whatever city or state you live in, you need to look up laws because you can be prosecuted for something you unwittingly participated in,” said BTAN Maryland co-chair Lonnie Bishop, peer health-navigator coordinator for the STAR TRACK Adolescent Health Program, of the need for PLWHA to protect themselves.
Many of the laws criminalize people who expose others to HIV, even if the person’s partner does not become infected. “If I’m HIV positive and we have sex, even if infection doesn’t happen, the fact that I had sex with you and did not reveal my status, that counts as exposure. Even if you’re not infected, it’s still a crime,” Davis said.
Robert Suttle, assistant director at the Sero Project, spoke about how laws created during the height of the HIV epidemic, when people did not understand how the virus was transmitted, are disproportionately used against Black and LGBTQ people, as well as those who inject drugs. In 2011, Suttle accepted a plea bargain after serving a six-month sentence under Louisiana’s so-called Intentional Exposure to AIDS Virus statute, after a partner with whom he had been in a contentious relationship filed charges against him.
“His firsthand account of his experience as someone who suffered from one of these laws gave a lot of insight to the presentation,” Davis said.
“The majority of society has not caught on yet that HIV criminalization is simply another means of incarcerating socially and politically vulnerable communities—particularly Black or Brown—that face multiple interactions of HIV stigma and discrimination,” said Suttle. “So it has become very necessary to hold community events to raise awareness and explain exactly what criminalization of people living with HIV is all about.”
Suttle hopes that “as more and more people become better educated about HIV, we see a shift beyond fear or ill feelings around disclosure or perceived exposure [and move] to understanding that we can either prevent HIV by reducing stigma or … prosecute HIV by locking up those of us who are living with it. But we can’t do both.”
April Eugene is a Philadelphia-based writer.