How black celebrity silence can equal African American deaths

Black artists have and do play a critical role in the fight for racial justice. Our musicians have used their platforms to amplify issues impacting our communities, particularly around discrimination, violence and other forms of structural racism.

Black artists have also been historically vocal in raising awareness around HIV prevention and treatment. A$AP Ferg and Jay-Z headlined HIV benefit concerts in recent years, Common and LL Cool J starred in ‘get tested’ PSAs, and way back in 1995, The Notorious B.I.G. famously wore a red AIDS ribbon to the MTV VMAs.

Hip-hop artists do not shy away from speaking out about important issues that impact fans, but they have been noticeably silent when it comes to responding to the real impact of HIV on our communities and in our lives. Though testing, prevention and treatment are all important messages for celebrity promotion, black artists have an opportunity and a responsibility to join activists and organizations combating one of the most important issues of the HIV movement: criminalization.

What is HIV criminalization? According to AIDS United, it’s an “overly broad use of criminal law to penalize alleged, perceived or potential HIV exposure; alleged nondisclosure of a known HIV-positive status prior to sexual contact… or non-intentional HIV transmission.”

When HIV is criminalized, people living with HIV can face unjustly long jail sentences simply for having sex – regardless of transmission or ability to transmit. HIV exposure laws are relics from an earlier time and fly in the face of the science around how HIV is transmitted.

As of 2017, 34 states have laws that specifically criminalize HIV exposure (not transmission) through consensual sex. These laws result in the opposite of what they were intended for: They perpetuate stigma, and they deter people – especially black Americans and LGBTQ folks –from accessing HIV testing.

Under President Obama, the U.S. Justice Department issued guidelines suggesting elimination of HIV-specific criminal laws, except in a few specific situations.

According to the Williams Institute, black LGBTQ people are disproportionately impacted by HIV, both in the share of people living with the virus and the majority of new diagnoses. This overrepresentation, particularly among gay and bisexual men and transgender women, these laws disproportionately push LGBTQ folks of color into the criminal justice system.

Recently, black artists like Jesse Williams, Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, and Ava DuVernay have used their celebrity to engage in racial justice work like ending mass incarceration and reforming the racist criminal justice system. Now it’s time for black artists to take the leap and recognize how HIV criminalization is another manifestation of anti-blackness that must be denounced and dismantled.

Mass incarceration is nothing short of modern day slavery, a system that destroys families, devastates communities, and harms us all. The promise of this political moment is that the collective political outrage at the rates of our brothers and sisters being thrown in cages, manifest in a powerful movement that will address the intersections of criminalization, racial justice, sexual orientation and HIV.

Laws that criminalize HIV have nothing to do with safety and everything to do with control. They give law enforcement purview over our sex lives. Critically, these laws try to take away a person’s right to disclose their health status on their own terms.

HIV criminalization laws are part of systemic racism that pushes black Americans into jails. It’s time for black artists to stand with HIV activists and use their platforms to speak out against this injustice. So much of our movement and work has been about getting the state and the law enforcement out of our bedrooms; not invite them in. 

Eric Paulk is an advocate working at the intersections of race, class, and sexuality. Follow him on Twitter @EricPaulk

This column originally appeared in Project Q Atlanta's weekly print publication, Q magazine. Pick up your hard copy around town, and read the full issue below.