We’ve all heard scare stories of “intentional HIV infection,” usually racially charged “news” accounts of HIV-positive men looking to infect innocents, male and female, who have no idea the danger they face when the hop into bed with the guy. But for the majority of people with HIV serving time right now in these cases — sometimes for decades — there was nothing intentional about it and no transmission even occurred.
These cases usually involve a frightened or disgruntled lover who claims they didn’t know their partner’s HIV status and then call the cops. In some cases, it doesn’t even matter if infection actually occurred. Prosecutors then add a strong dose of homophobia (A gay man is having intercourse! And he has AIDS!) and charge the defendant with everything from bio-terrorism to attempted murder.
To a jury unfamiliar with the actual extremely low risk of transmission in such cases and the mutual responsibility of both partners–and shocked that someone with HIV would dare to have sex at all–the crime seems obvious and horrific. The result is hundreds of long sentences for biting, spitting, or protected sex without regard for the actual harm inflicted, if any.
But help is on the way. Last week, a group of more than 150 advocates met in Iowa, the first state to reform their HIV criminalization statutes, to begin the work of advocating for decriminalization and finding help for those serving prison time.
Watch a video recap of the event below, including interviews with gay men who were convicted and jailed under the laws.
When one of the conference organizers, Reed Vreeland, stepped forward to introduce the next speaker during the opening night program, the energized audience had already heard a few stories of both injustice and inspiration. Everywhere in the United States, people living with HIV are being sent to jail for little more than their HIV status alone. But Reed had something else entirely to present.
“Kerry Thomas was prosecuted of not disclosing his HIV status to someone,” Reed began. “Kerry also had an undetectable HIV viral load and he protected his partner by using a condom. No one was infected, and no one could have been. Kerry won’t get out of jail until the year 2038. Fortunately, we have him with us here this evening.”
And with that, Reed lifted his cell phone to the podium, and the strong, clear voice of Kerry Thomas, six years into his sentence at Idaho Correctional Facility, began to speak.
“Thank you, thank you for gathering to discuss this issue,” he said, and the stunned silence of the room was deafening. No one could begin to imagine what the man on the other end of the line must be going through.
Kerry spoke to the crowd of life behind bars, of his love for his family, of the prosecution led by people who didn’t believe he should be having sex at all. Then, he encouraged everyone in the room to work as hard as they could on reforming HIV criminalization laws, so that no one would have to go through the nightmare he was experiencing. He remained upbeat and gracious throughout.
“Thank you for speaking to us,” Reed said when Kerry finished his remarks.
The crowd swallowed the lump in their throats and came to life, beginning to applaud Kerry, and then to cheer, and it soon became an emotional outpouring of love and sadness and support that shook the auditorium.
“The room is applauding you,” Reed said into the phone. “Can you hear that?” How Reed kept his composure during the heartbreaking, inspiring moment was itself a considerable feat. Kerry’s response was drowned out by the thunderous ovation, so Reed continued relaying what he was witnessing from the stage.
“They are standing for you, Kerry,” he said calmly, as the ovation grew. “They are standing and applauding for you. They want you to know how much they support you.” The crowd thundered on, with tears in their eyes.
The issue of HIV criminalization usually gets a visceral reaction. We all know someone living with HIV who was infected by someone who lied to them. No one at the conference believes that anyone who intentionally harms someone else should be excused. But harming others is covered in existing laws, and by creating specific laws against non-disclosure of your HIV status (26 States have them on the books), we create a viral underclass of citizens, held to different standards based solely on their health condition.
Hepatitis and HPV kill far more people each year than HIV, but we don’t criminalize transmission of those viruses. Why? Probably because they aren’t associated with same-sex intercourse. And those of us with a sense of vengeance over each new HIV infection are playing right into the hands of conservative prosecutors who are more than happy to send some someone to jail.
It might be easy to dismiss the fate of the gay men serving time right now. But it is an injustice worth considering. With new prevention tools like PrEP for negative guys and positive guys becoming undetectable, the waters of disclosure are muddied and confusing. Is not disclosing HIV status, even when no one was put at risk, a crime worth jail?