The fear of people with HIV might be traced to the myth of Gaetan Dugas, also known by his nickname, Patient Zero. Dugas was the flight attendant from Canada who, according to Randy Shilts’ 1987 book And the Band Played On, was among the first people with HIV in the United States.
As the story goes, energetic Dugas (right) spent lots of time in the very early 1980s getting laid in practically every city with an airport, even after learning he had the mysterious new “gay cancer.” He wanted to go out with a bang, the book claimed, and he didn’t particularly care who he might infect in the process. The book repeated rumors that after sex with bath house tricks Dugas would point out his skin lesions and then announce, “now you have it.”
The only problem is that the story isn’t true. Two years ago, the book’s editor admitted the narrative needed a “literary device” and had encouraged Shilts to create the epidemic’s first “AIDS monster.” The scandalous sex life of Gaetan Dugas fit the bill nicely. Dugas died in 1984, never having the opportunity to answer his accusers regarding his alleged behaviors. After Dugas’ death, CDC data made it clear that HIV was being spread in the United States long before Dugas was around.
Instead of placing responsibility with everyone having sex, particularly unprotected sex, the book painted people with HIV as suicide bombers. The damage, to the truth and to the public image of people with AIDS, has reverberated for years.
Today, the fear of being “tricked” into getting infected has only added to the stigma against people with HIV. Social rejection of those with the virus, from casual dating to online hookups, has only increased as those with HIV attempt to negotiate healthy sex lives and relationships. Advocates believe all this stigma adds up to less HIV testing: seeing how positive guys are treated is a disincentive for negative guys to get tested at all.
Public health advocates are alarmed at how the debate over risk, status and personal responsibility has moved out of the bedroom and into the courtroom. How, they argue, are they supposed to encourage people to get tested if knowing your HIV status might someday land you in jail?
HIV criminalization laws that prosecute people for not disclosing their status (or heighten unrelated charges because the person is HIV positive) now exist in 34 states. None of them require that HIV transmission actually occurred. And where no such laws exist, people with HIV are still being prosecuted for assault, attempted murder, even bioterrorism. In one review of 60 well-documented cases, only four involved the actual transmission of HIV.
Anyone with HIV and a pissed off ex-lover in the 34 states should be concerned, since these cases often become a matter of whom you believe. Prosecutors and unfriendly juries are often surprised that people with HIV are having sex at all. They couldn’t care less about the reality of latex or undetectable viral loads. They just believe people who don’t disclose their status before sexual activity should be punished.
Gay men are not immune from this regressive point of view. Many of us know someone infected by a sex partner who lied about or failed to disclose their status, and we want that jerk to pay for it. This sense of vengeance plays into the hands of a legal system that is often biased against people with HIV, regardless of the actual harm inflicted. If you want to get a feel for the fireworks between poz guys and their accusers, the video below should give you an idea:
An upcoming event will bring together advocates, legal experts and people living with HIV to discuss criminalization and map out a strategy to combat it.
“HIV is Not a Crime” is the first national conference on HIV criminalization. It will be held on June 2-5, 2014, in Grinnell, Iowa. Yes, Iowa. Some of the most effective activism around this issue is happening there, where state legislators are actually re-thinking their own laws and health policies as a result of smart advocacy and education.
Regardless of your views on criminalization, everyone agrees that anyone who intentionally seeks to harm another person should be held accountable for it. That’s why we have laws against hurting other people.
But HIV has its very own laws ordering people to disclose if they have it. The same cannot be said for other infectious viruses such as Human Papillomavirus (HPV) or Hepatitis C, which actually kill more people each year. The reason, in the mind of many advocates, is because those viral conditions are not as closely associated with gay sexuality. Or race. Or the disenfranchised. Get the picture?
Criminalization is not limited to whether or not someone discloses, even if those scenarios capture our imagination the most. Prostitution, or spitting at a cop, or punching somebody in the face in a bar, can carry more severe sentences if the accused is HIV positive.
In other words, defendants in these cases are guilty of living with HIV. That should give anyone real pause.
Look closely at the media stories about these cases and you will find that “not disclosing” is usually equated with “intentionally infecting.” Exploitative news reports characterize sex on the part of someone with HIV as malicious by definition.
Sentences that amount to decades in jail are being handed down (there have been more than 500 criminal prosecutions in the United States, and counting). The convicted often must register as sex offenders even after serving time. And according to advocates, public health is not being well served. They believe that criminalization is discouraging HIV testing, since only those who know their HIV status are being prosecuted.
The issue is as complicated as anything we have faced since AIDS began. It is a mine field of emotion, justice, science and payback.
Where do you stand?