HIV has always been political. Reagan took five years to say the word “AIDS.” Bush I signed the Americans with Disabilities and Ryan White Care Acts but required states to certify prosecutions of people who knowingly exposed others to HIV, giving rise to HIV disclosure laws.
Under Clinton, the CDC named HIV as the leading cause of death for black men between ages 25-44. Under Bush II, activists had to fight to expose policy shortfalls and confront systemic drivers of HIV that also restrict access to care and dictate moral behaviors.Under Obama, the U.S. Justice Department issued temporary and non-binding guidelines suggesting elimination of HIV-specific criminal laws, except in a few specific cases.
Flash forward to today. President Trump has promised to end AIDS by 2030, but more than 30 states, including Georgia, have active HIV-specific statutes and cases that criminalize people living with HIV.
This week, I will join other advocates at the Gold Dome to do something about it, and you can too.
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.
These laws perpetuate stigma, and they deter people – especially black Americans and LGBTQ folks –from accessing HIV testing.
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.
We have the tools to bring the epidemic under control by Trump’s “deadline,” but the promise of ending HIV cannot be realized without an honest assessment of existing policies and strong HIV advocates on the ground holding policymakers accountable.
Georgia is indicative of the rest of the country. The burden of new HIV transmissions is among marginalized communities including young, black, gay and bisexual men and transgender communities. The epidemic is driven by social and economic inequities that include poor access to healthcare, criminalization and stigma.
When these factors are set against a policy landscape aimed at undermining the social safety net, weakening the Affordable Care Act, and dismantling discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, efforts to end the HIV epidemic are undermined. As such, we must hold our elected officials accountable and advance legislation that actually supports ending the epidemic.
Please register to join me and other advocates from around the state on Feb. 6 to demand HIV criminal justice reform during the AIDS Watch Georgia 2020 day of advocacy at the Gold Dome to speak to our legislators. We will meet at Atlanta City Hall at 8:30 a.m., and walk across the street to the capitol.
Eric Paulk is a longtime advocate at the intersection of race and sexuality. He is deputy director of Georgia Equality.
This column originally appeared in Q magazine. Read the full issue online here:
Pick up each new edition of Q magazine at LGBTQ and queer-friendly venues around Atlanta.