HIV Criminalization

How People With HIV Became The New Suicide Bombers

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.

Gaetan Dugas picAs 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:

Even reality television has had its own version of criminalization: when Lee Thompson, also known as Uncle Poodle on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, came out as both gay and HIV positive, Thompson felt the need to explain himself. He claimed the man who infected him was in jail for lying about his HIV status. The story, which has never been substantiated, had the whiff of someone trying to protect his reputation.

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.

HIVisNotACrimeARTRegardless 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?

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  • truckproductions

    there is a very simple way for hiv poz men to avoid jail/lawsuits… Be honest. Be upfront with every sexual partner.. Nannying poz guys into believing they don’t have a responsibility to be honest and upfront about their status is the most alarming trend I see happening in the gay community..

  • Mezaien

    @truckproductions: There is very simple way for Christian, to avoid jail/lawsuits! don`t be Christian.

  • erikwm

    It’s wrong not to tell someone you have a sexually transmitted disease that could, in the absence of regular, costly medication, kill you. It’s OK not to want to have sex with someone if they do have HIV, even if their viral load is undetectable and the risk of infection is low.

    I feel like these articles are always designed to make me feel bad for not wanting to have sex with someone who is positive.

    Also, comparing HIV/AIDS to Hepatitis C and HPV is a red herring. HIV/AIDS is fatal in an overwhelming majority of cases in the absence of medication. Hepatitis C is curable and there is a vaccine to prevent HPV. There is no vaccine or cure for HIV/AIDS.

  • erikwm

    The reason HIV/AIDS is still viewed as such a scary disease is because it elevates medication to the level of food, water, and oxygen — without, you’ll die. You can never stop taking that medication.

    There is no other STD like it.

  • aequalitasTN

    @truckproductions: Wow, that is incredibly simplistic. Let’s move away for a moment from the fact that any positive person may have actually disclosed to the person who was infected that they were positive and said complaining witness is now simply angry because they are infected (even though corroborating such should be part of the burden of proof present on the prosecution, any given number of jurors don’t care, so your only hope in that situation is the judge precluding such in pre-trial hearings, which they usually will not as there is no cause to do so as a matter of law), and focus on the fact that people are being prosecuted for defending themselves in a fight, or even spitting at someone, which as any medical doctor will tell you has about as much of a chance of infecting someone as a toilet seat, provided that it was just spit. First of all, prove mens rea on this matter; prove that there was criminal intent on this person to transmit this virus. I am betting that is going to be an insurmountable hurdle for any prosecutor, so the states found a way around it by assuming criminal intent to transmit by the positive person’s actions of having sex, or even defending themselves. With criminal intent presumed under the legislation, prosecutors bring the trumped up charge and simply have to prove that the person knew they were infected, that, of course, is easy, it just takes medical records. Presto, instant conviction!

    Now, let’s look at the human side of this. I challenge you to find me someone with tuberculosis or the flu that says they want someone else to have it; likewise, I have never met someone who is positive that says they want to infect anyone else. Do they exist? Maybe, but again I think one ould be hard pressed to find someone, but should not a prosecutor have to prove malicious intent?

    Don’t get me wrong, I completely agree that every positive person should disclose to any sexual partner if they aware of their status, but shall we say the same before that same positive person is forced to defend him or herself where the assaulting party happens to get their butt kicked because they bit off more than theydid could chew and subsequently files assault charges against the person defending themselves? What aboutwl the people with other more communicable diseases, such as the airborne flu virus? Flu can easily kill someone. So why don’t we prosecute someone for spreading the strain that kills several hundred people each year for murder? This, to me, is clearly a 14th amendment issue and these laws need to be struck down for doing exactly what it is they do: creating a new class of people and demeaning them. They are clearly animus toward people who are living with a chronic condition, in a country where people with self-inflicted obesity causing heart disease that kills many more people each year than this virus are not even allowed to be charged extra for health insurance. How is that justice?

    I am not positive, and I pray to god that I never get diagnosed, but I do know a good number of people who are, and the fact is that these folks have enough to worry about and manage without being further stigmatized by the state governments who didn’t find it necessary to listen to medical science before they passed these laws out of fear and hate. You want people to be more responsible? Don’t make knowing your status presumed criminal intent under the law.

  • Grrrowler

    Yes, it is up to the positive person to disclose his status and from an ethical standpoint the only option is to honestly disclose status. But, but the responsibility isn’t solely on the positive partner’s side. For the negative person wanting to stay negative, it’s ultimately his responsibility to ask and protect himself. I’ve personally known several guys who approach sex with a “No news must be good news” attitude; if the guy doesn’t disclose that he’s poz, he must not be. In addition to the total naivety of that approach, the big problem is that they absolve themselves of responsibility for their own health. While poz guys need to disclose in order to allow the other partner to make an informed choice, the negative partner has to take responsibility for his own well-being.

    If someone is negative and wants to stay that way, the only safe approach is to assume that every sex partner, regardless of what he says about his status, is positive and take the necessary precautions.

  • Stache99

    Why not just play safe instead of all this needless back and forth drama. If you don’t want to play with someone that’s HIV pos and it makes you feel better fine. Newsflash though. You probably already are or have. Not everyone knows they have it.

    In my experience those that make a big deal out of it are either looking to have some non protected fun or just hypochondriac drama queens who you would want to avoid at all costs anyways.

  • Stache99

    Anyways, cue the “Pearl Clutching Drama Queen Brigade” and get some pop corn going. I think were going to have another fun one.

  • TerrenM

    Great 60 Minutes story on Gaetan Dugas that aired in the 80s. I came across it about a year ago. Amazing how time changes things and YET… so many things have stayed the same.

  • TerrenM

    @TerrenM: You also get to see the real life, feisty woman played by Lily Tomlin… Dr. Selma Dritz.

  • out91394

    Telling someone your status would be a lot easier if every time you told someone they didn’t treat you like a leper. The gay community is constantly screaming about equality yet it treats HIV positive people with fear and disdain, can we say double standard. I have not even been on a date in over 4 years let alone seen a guy naked that wasn’t a pic or porn. Why you ask??? Because of the hate and constant rejection, you can be treated with fear and disgust so many times until you cannot even stand those who should be supporting you most. I stand alone with being HIV positive because no one will stand with me.

  • curan

    As a negative, active male, who had the SURPRISE conversation once, and once only, leave the laws as they stand.

    I’ve always played safe, but now I also always ask.

    If a partner CAN get away with lying without the example of a 25-year suspended sentence and life on the offender registry, then they certainly WILL, and it will be a free-for-all on negative men.

    This is not unfair. This is as it should be.

  • joey

    @erikwm: youre right on erikwm. i totally agree with you. i came out late and in the begining was wild had fun, loved it all. after a while though i began to realize i was being lied to about status and worse yet i was shocked when i found out i had sex with poz guys…i couldnt imagine anyone not volunterring that info. i ALWAYS used condoms never once bb so i guess i was lucky i stayed neg, after all shit happens even if you use condoms, undetectable doesnt mean cured and guys can forget to take meds…etc… eventually i just couldn’t deal with getting tested , i would always wonder if this was the time i had fucked up, so i just stopped fucking its a great feeling knowing i dont need to worry, i miss fucking but its been almost 2 yrs now and i havent died from not fucking lol…and i dont have any stress or anymore tests to go take

  • hivgay_com

    Living with HIV? Go to Confidential and no discrimination!

  • sejjo

    That Gaetan Dugas story makes me mad. What was Randy Shilts thinking? As a fellow homo who also perished because of AIDS, it isn’t unreasonable to have expected better from him. Dugas will always be remembered as Patient Zero and he will never have the opportunity to defend himself. Where is his family and what do they have to say about this? Did they change their last name because of its connotation (is there anyone left in the world with the surname ‘Hitler’)??

    I agree with the sentiments expressed in this article. However, what we’re arguing against are reactionary laws that paint all people that have HIV with the same brush. 9/11 was caused by radical Muslims, now all Muslims are painted with the same brush. Some innocent people are thrown off flights because of reactionary passengers. And that’s exactly what is happening with people that have HIV/AIDS. There are undoubtedly people who have HIV/AIDS who are malicious, but we have to sift them out from the people lacking intent and negligence. We shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

  • Large Marge

    @curan: The laws are wrong. You can want to bury your head in the sand but the only thing criminalized is knowing you have HIV. It’s a deterrent to being tested and knowing.

    You must assume that EVERY partner has HIV and whether or not they know doesn’t matter.

    Only you are responsible for your own health. Stop trying to foist that responsibility onto others so you can be irresponsible with your own sexual health.

  • joey

    other than just stop fucking you are never ever 100% safe, i agree with curan everyone has to see what their level of risk is for them. i have had not one but three couples i know where one of them screwed around and 2 of the 3 couples passed it on to their partner. horrible horrible horrible..if that was my partner i’d be in jail…..speaking for me, if i assumed that my partner was poz my dick could not get hard, i’d be way too preoccupied thinking something was going to go wrong.

  • jonjct

    @joey: wow, this is true for me too. after my closed bb relationship ended, i couldn’t deal with the anxiety of protecting myself. and i had a test that read not pos or neg but “undetermined”. (later was neg). so i became celibate. i really miss sex, but as you say, abstinence hasn’t killed me yet.

    second point is the epidemiology of HIV in the gay population. i believe it was the monkey lung tissue in the hep B trials that contained HIV, and was passed along in the clinical trials to gays in all the major cities in the US. the emergence of clinical HIV in clusters 1-2 years after the (same clusters) vaccine trials is a major clue about how this got started and why it took hold so quickly and strongly across the nation. HIV was in africa but not yet in the USA until the hep B trials started. koprowsky (wistar institute, philadelphia),introduced HIV in africa by the illegal use of monkey lung tissue in the polio vaccine trials in the 50’s. i view him as the father of the present day HIV epidemic. randy shilts’ patient zero model is bullshizz. it defies all empirical models of transmission and is just an electrifying story that sold a lot of books.

  • Ben Dover

    @Large Marge: Never mind “curan” – he hates those “SURPRISE” conversations, so he’d rather have sex with a guy who’s been tested *in the last six months* or whatever, and honestly says so, and has a viral load of 10 gazillion… than even consider having sex with a poz guy who’s undetectable and honestly says so.

    So we can see what a whiny b!tch “curan” will be when he inevitably becomes poz!

    @joey: Do they still have convents? You could look into that.

  • Mark Jenkins

    @joey: Sorry to burst a bubble, Joey- but it can take 10 years for the virus to show up in your system-that’s how it got so out of hand in the first place- by the time it was discovered and made public (people were dropping like flies and Reagan wouldn’t even speak the word AIDS)- most of us had it and some were afraid to get tested. I’ve been poz now for 25 years roughly- Undetectable- thanks to all the new meds they’ve invented. But it’s a bitch having to live on pills and never miss a dose. I’m active on several “dating” sites, and always disclose my status(It’s in my profile)… what I can’t understand, though, is some young guys who want to have sex with HIV+ guys- they WANT to become infected!!! It’s like a status symbol!!! (I’m not assuming here- I’ve actually had this conversation with them). They have no concept or understanding of what it’s like to live with the disease- and sometimes the stigma(when ignorant and bigoted people find out- (It cost me a job I really liked in the mid 90s). I feel like a dinosaur sometimes-most of the guys I new when I was young are dead from this thing and definitely feel like I’ve survived a plague. I think it’s the duty of anyone with HIV to disclose that they have it- before sex- and let the intended partner make the decision.

  • joey

    @Ben Dover: ahh i am far from living in a convent, but the anxiety just became too much. as i said i never bb EVER but after being lied to, hearing stories of condoms breaking, a guy getting precum on his fingers as he put on a comdom….well you get the idea. i would get so freaked out and sick going for a test and then waiting for results. now i know 100% for sure i am fine. i admit its sucks at times i miss that hot sweaty, romp anywhere but the bed kind of sex, but then i make myself remember how it was going for and waiting for test results. add to that the idea that we are supposed to think EVERYONE is poz and not forget that many if not most people with hiv DO NOT even know they have it, then it makes it easier. i have opportunities every day to fuck and at times its a struggle. i’m not perfect and i have no idea if this will be forever but right now it feels real good.

  • joey

    @Mark Jenkins: UM why do you think you are bursting my bubble? are you saying that dispite my last test hiv could still show up? i had both a ELISA and western blot tests about two years ago, i initially started with the oral test. are you saying these tests are not good enough? i should get tested again?

  • Stache99

    @Mark Jenkins: Mark where are you getting this information? 10 years. Ha. See now your even scarring Joey the hypochondriac. I can see him racing to his doctor about now.

    Also, twenty somethings are now looking to acquire the virus as a “status symbol”? Come on guy. Can we talk about this in a honest way without dramatic hyperbole.

  • no1

    Everyone should practice safe sex not just because of HIV but for things like the new super strains of Gonorrhea and Syphilis which are both drug resistant. The things that both Gonorrhea and Syphilis does to the human body is horrific.

  • barkomatic

    The sad thing is, I can easily see these laws evolving to the point where even if you are unaware if you are HIV positive — you will still be held accountable if someone you had sex with become positive. In other words, not knowing your status won’t be a defense. You’re guilty just for having sex.

  • jonjct

    @joey: JOEY: you are wasting your time getting tested again. the work-up you had two years ago is quite enough as long it was 6 months after any exposure you might have had. the virus does NOT just show up 10 years later. 99.99% of poz test results show up within 6 months of exposure. you would have to be really special to convert outside of the 6 month window. you are not that special. you are safe, there is nothing to worry about.

  • TVC 15

    @joey: @jonjct: Maybe you boys should meet and do it. At least you both know for sure that you’re both negative because of your paralizing paranoia.

  • Stache99

    @TVC 15: Exept joey has recently caught hepatitis B. He’s been on here crying for the last umteen months that he’s sure he’s going to die..somehow. Jonjct’s paranoia of catching it would end that relationship faster then it would take to say goodbye.

  • vive

    @joey, I am not trying to put you down but what you describe is at the level of mental illness. Please see a professional. Life is short and when you are older you are going to have a lot of regrets. The purpose of life is not just to get old.

  • joey

    @jonjct: i wasnt going to go get tested agin i was just curious about those remarks, i felt satisfied with those tests. this was just information i never heard before.

  • Stache99

    @vive: Joey’s whole deal was that he got Hep B from having sex. Therefore the solution in his mind is just to never have sex again. Never get close to anyone again. Absolutely a form of mental illness.

  • TVC 15

    @Stache99: @vive: Seriously.

    OK, so my comment was a bit bitchy, but @vive: is right.

  • joey

    @Stache99: i am sorry i sounded like i was crying, i didnt ever think i was crying. i am not sure how recent i caught the disease but i thought it pertinent to the discussions on here and other threads. it is a sexually transmitted disease, and i was just speaking about my experience. i was pretty wild sexually most of my gay life and i was just sharing what i felt was a repercussion of my decisions. it stunned me,because i always had safer sex, never bb and thought i did everything correctly. as far as your dying comment, if left untreated, chronic hep b(undiscoverd) you will most likely die from it – 80% of the time you will develope terminal liver cancer. oh and i am never allowed to drink again either. what this did to me was a wake up call about my sex life and i made decision that i thought would save me from any further issues STI related.

  • Stache99

    @joey: In the United States, 95% of adults who get hepatitis B are able to clear the virus and cure themselves of infection. The remaining 5% of adults with acute hepatitis B go on to develop chronic hepatitis B. Those who acquire the infection in childhood are much more likely to have chronic infection. Chronic hepatitis B may lead to cirrhosis or liver failure. Approximately 15% to 25% of people with chronic infection will die prematurely as a result of the infection.

  • joey

    @vive: guys i didnt crawl into a cave.LOL i still have friends and a life. as i mentioned i thought i did everything right, somehow i didn’t.. does the term “gun shy” mean anything? or played with fire and got burned? thats how i feel. i havent crawled into a hole somewhere. testing always drove me crazy, it no doubt drives lots of people crazy, i would get nervous and upset, some (many?) get so upset by the thought of it they never go at all — fear of getting tested is a huge issue for many guys. everyone is different…everyone trys to make the best decision for themselves. honestly i really do feel good, “safe” ? after each crazy sex party, wild fuck, up against the wall fireworks in the sky orgasim…i realized the next day i had to get tested just became a maddening circle – a ying and yang so to speak. when this shit that happened to me it just didnt seem worth it anymore. and some are telling me its OK just assume everyone is poz…i ‘m sorry but that just doesn’t make me feel very good..

  • joey

    @Stache99: i am that 5% i have chronic hep b i must be on Tenofovir the rest of my life ..if it was LEFT UNTREATED it can kill you. had i not gone for a yearly doc check up i would never have known. i need to have ultrasound liver scans 2x a year to check for liver cancer for the rest of my life. what is not scary about your information?

  • Stache99

    @joey: Just correcting the information that you had is all.

  • joey

    @Stache99: what did i say that was wrong? gee i thought i had my facts str8

  • Ben Dover

    @joey: I get it – you were unlucky enough to wind up with the Hep B complications, but you’re still HIV-negative.

    The thing I don’t get it is, if the sex was as good & wild with those guys as you describe, why didn’t you continue it with ANY of those guys? Did you have sex just once with a hot guy, and then run out & get tested? Over & over?

    In the scenario you describe so-o-o-o vividly, it seems that occasionally you had wild sex with a totally NEW guy. Then you’re all worried again and get tested again and you’re HIV-negative again. But you never see the guy again. And this happened over & over? Gee, if someone is sexually compatible and you don’t catch anything from him, maybe he’s a safer bet than running out a few months later to find a new hot stranger. Maybe you could find someone you could trust at least at that level. Just a suggestion!

    I can totally understand not being ready for a boyfriend when you’re young – I wasn’t ready or interested til my late 30s – but for a lot us the natural thing is to have regular sex buddies.

    Instead you seem intent on never having sex again, of any kind, EVER – which yes, seems insane.

    There actually IS a lot of middle ground between being in a totally monogamous relationship, and being a total slut!

  • joey

    @Ben Dover when i first came out it was wild and crazy, i had a lot of fun,and i guess i enjoyed all the different guys and the playing around. then for a while i gravitated to a few FB. in the last few yrs its been mostly FWB or FB, with a fair amount of repeats for a while. i didnt go get tested after each time, in fact as i mentioned i hated getting tested and i had friends that would almost drag me there 2x a year, but i went. i think as time went on i saw friends becoming poz,a lot of STI,and the fact that i realized i was being lied to, and heard stories about broken condoms etc etc..and this hep diagnosis was sort of like the last straw. i guess i saw it as a very serious wake up call. i realized that i couldnt ever control someone lying to me, a condom breaking the safest thing for a guy like me (not in a relationship) is to stop with the fucking. you are correct if a guy finds a compatible person and they are relationship oriented that is the safest…so long as your guy doesnt lie about him fucking around. i understand your middleground comment but as i said even the FB i had lied just seemed easier for me to stop and as i have mentioned it feels good not having to think about going and getting tested

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