Posters by the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation in Philadelphia
Posters by the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation in Philadelphia (Photo: Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation)

Treatment of HIV has advanced greatly since the virus first appeared in the 1980s. Despite this, much of the stigma remains the same, and HIV-related legislation from years ago remains in place.

Things are slowly changing. In May, the FDA gave its approval to gay men donating blood, provided they’ve not had anal sex in the preceding three months. For decades, there was a blanket ban on any gay blood donation.

In 2020, San Francisco lawmakers voted to repeal a decades-old ban on gay bathhouses. The emerging Covid pandemic halted their immediate return.

The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation is not focussing on another area of HIV legislation: laws criminalizing people living with HIV.

More specifically, it’s behind posters and billboards around parts of Pennsylvania informing people, “HIV is not a crime”.

The posters have gone up around Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Bucks County.

Posters by the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation in Philadelphia
(Photo: Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation)

According to the ETAF, “in more than 30 states people are being imprisoned due to their HIV status as a result of outdated laws enacted decades ago.

“These laws do not reflect scientific progress and what we now know about HIV transmission, and they ultimately put public health at risk simply because stigma and fear of prosecution discourage people from getting tested and treated.”

We’re no longer living in the 80s

The posters use images of outdated products from yesteryear (like vintage cellphones), and compares them to outdated HIV laws.

Catherine Brown, Executive Director of ETAF, said in a press release, “Although these laws have a real, often devastating impact on individual lives – especially on BIPOC and LGBT+ communities – the fact is they’re not widely known. We’re hoping to change that, because we know that once people learn about these laws, they’ll understand how outdated, unjust, and unnecessary they are.”

In a statement on its website, the Foundation says, “Thanks to scientific advancements, HIV is no longer a death sentence and, with the right medications, the risk of transmitting the virus from one person to another is nearly zero. Despite this medical progress, people living with HIV are being charged and branded as criminals because of their status.”

ETAF, and other HIV advocacy organizations, believe such laws increase the stigma against HIV. They also believe they dissuade people from getting tested.

Criminalizing those with HIV

It would be wrong to think this is just about confirmed cases of HIV transmission. According to the AIDS Project of Pennsylvania, state authorities have used “general criminal statutes to charge people living with HIV for conduct that would not be criminal, except for their HIV status.”

For example, in the mid-00s, an HIV-positive man faced charges of “reckless endangerment” after he hooked up with another man (Commonwealth v. Cordoba). “They engaged in oral sex with ejaculation of the face and chest. The complaining party stated that they did not exchange semen.”

More recently, in 2022, Pennsylvania’s then-Governor Tom Wolf signed a law (HB 103) that enhances penalties for people living with HIV and other communicable diseases. The law threatens anyone who is HIV-positive who spits at a police officer with seven years in jail. This is despite the fact HIV cannot be passed on via saliva.

The legislation also creates a second-degree felony offense for people who knew or “should have known” they had a reportable, communicable disease and their actions could have transmitted that disease. This offense is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and up to $25,000 in fines.

Robert Suttle

Louisiana is another state that has laws criminalizing people for not disclosing their HIV status. One gay man who went to prison because of this is activist Robert Suttle. On New Year’s Eve 2007, he met and man and they soon began dating. The relationship fizzled out, and the man went to the police saying Suttle had not told him of his HIV status. Suttle disputes not informing his partner.

Regardless, Suttle was arrested and charged. Rather than risk a maximum sentence, he took a plea deal and ended up serving six months of hard labor in state prison in 2010-2011. Upon release, Suttle was placed on the sex offenders register. He has since relocated to New York, where he has been added to that state’s sex offenders register. Fourteen years after his conviction, Suttle’s fighting the state of New York to remove his name from its sex offenders register, arguing the state doesn’t even have laws criminalizing people for not disclosing their HIV status.

Suttle now serves as chair of the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation’s HIV Is Not A Crime Council of Justice Leaders.

Find out more about the #HIVIsNotACrime campaign at hivisnotacrime-etaf.org

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