For decades Black communities have been disproportionally targeted and impacted by mass incarceration in the United States. Since 1981, HIV has disproportionately affected Black Americans due to social factors that influence HIV transmission. But there are also state-sponsored factors that disproportionately affect Black people living with HIV, like HIV criminalization. HIV criminalization defines people living with HIV as an inherent danger to society, creating a viral underclass in the law. I see it simply as another way to incarcerate Black people.
Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data shows that Black people, especially young black gay and bisexual men continue to account for more than half of new HIV diagnoses, the largest single category of people living with HIV, and they are already disproportionately criminalized because of the color of their skin and their sexual orientation. Coming from socially and politically vulnerable communities in the Deep South, many of us face multiple intersections of stigma and discrimination, as well as a very tense history with the public health system and police violence, even before the advent of HIV.
HIV might no longer be a death sentence, but for many black people living with HIV and people from disenfranchised communities, it is often a prison sentence.
I found out the hard way, at 30 years old, when I was convicted under Louisiana’s so-called “Intentional Exposure to AIDS Virus” statute and was sentenced to serve six months in a state prison. I was also required to register as a sex offender for 15 years. On my Louisiana driver’s license, underneath my photograph, it says in large red capital letters “SEX OFFENDER.”
Every person living with HIV is just one misunderstanding or disgruntled ex-partner away from finding him or herself in a courtroom.
Most southern states, like Louisiana, passed HIV-specific criminal statutes in the late 80s and 90s to prosecute people with HIV for non-disclosure of their HIV status before having sex or for perceived or possible HIV exposure. The legislators believed such laws would reduce transmission, but instead they have done more harm than good, with evidence demonstrating that they drive stigma and discourage people at risk from getting tested or treated.
Most people living with HIV, including Black men with HIV, are non-violent, law-abiding citizens who don’t want to transmit the virus to anyone. But these laws typically do not require criminal intent, nor does it matter whether or not HIV was transmitted or even if there was any chance of HIV transmission. Use of safe sex practices or having an undetectable viral load, making it virtually impossible for a person with HIV to transmit the virus sexually, is not a defense. Even disclosing to one’s partner may not protect a person from prosecution.
Today every person living with HIV is just one misunderstanding or disgruntled ex-partner away from finding him or herself in a courtroom. 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. In addition, it becomes extremely difficult to have stable employment and housing, privacy (whether convicted or not), in some states your right to vote, or simply your dignity to be seen as a person and not a “violent” sex offender or criminal.
My situation is not rare; there has been hundreds of reported and unreported prosecutions in the South and all over the U.S. with situations similar to mine. Of course, each personal experience is different, but one thing for sure is the profoundly stigmatizing effect of HIV criminalization and the harm it can do to our Black communities, our families and our future.