A former gay Atlanta man charged with exposing a sex partner to HIV says he did disclose his status and that it's being "blown out of proportion" by small town authorities inexperienced with HIV criminalization cases.
"I did disclose," Tyler Orr says. "Where I'm living at, it's a small community and it's the first time they've ever dealt with it. They didn't really get both sides of the story. They've never had this kind of issue come along."
Orr was arrested at his home in Walhalla, S.C. on Feb. 19 and charged with two counts of exposing another person to HIV, which is punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and up to 10 years in prison. He says he spent four or five days in the Oconee County Detention Center before being released on bond.
Sheriff's deputies allege that Orr had unprotected sex at least twice with a man in December. Authorities say the man reported the encounters to sheriff's deputies after he learned that Orr is HIV-positive. But Orr, an HIV activist, says he told his partner he's HIV-positive before they had sex.
In January, Orr created a video discussing HIV and his status for the Greater Than AIDS campaign (watch below). In February, Orr attended the Georgia GSA Summit at Agnes Scott College in Decatur. The day-long event addressed LGBT health, advocacy and social justice.
"By no means do I ever want to infect you. That's not in my nature and I would never wish that on anybody," Orr says.
Orr lived in Atlanta for about a year before returning to his native Walhalla last June. Living in Atlanta was an eye-opening experience for a young gay man from rural South Carolina, he says.
"I came for a weekend to see some friends and I stayed. I had fun but I learned a lot," Orr says. But, he adds, "the city was too much. I'm a country boy."
Since his arrest – deputies were waiting at his home on Feb. 19 – the 24-year-old says he's worked in the family business and kept to himself. Orr says he's faced gossip about the case in the small town from "ignorant rednecks around here."
"They will talk their talk. But let them talk. They are not educated. I know where I stand and they are just ignorant," Orr says.
South Carolina and Georgia are among three-dozen states that criminalize a lack of HIV disclosure. LGBT and HIV activists say the laws increase stigma around HIV and fail to consider whether condoms are used and if the disease is transmitted.
"It is the law so I can't really change it. But it is too harsh. The maximum is 10 or 15 years in prison and that is too harsh," Orr says. "Some people don't know how to disclose, some people are scared to disclose. It is a harsh punishment."
Orr has a public defender to represent him in the criminal case. He also launched a Go Fund Me campaign to raise funds for his defense. Officials with the 10th Judicial Circuit, which is prosecuting Orr, did not respond to questions about the case.
"It's a small community so I've got to lay low. I am just living day by day and waiting to see what they say and what's next," Orr says.