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Opinion: I’m HIV-Positive, An Advocate, and Still Unsure About Elminating HIV Criminalization Laws

As a person who is living with HIV and who has many national platforms that advocate for, as well as educate, millions of people about HIV and AIDS, I sincerely struggle with one issue. I do everything in my power to help end all stigma associated with HIV, yet there is one thing that seems to be a big issue for folks living with the virus that just has me stuck on the fence: social justice. Is HIV criminalization necessary?

Understand that that terminology alone is very stigmatizing; which I hate but understand. Because part of me feels as though the term refers to all persons living with HIV as if we are walking criminals, which isn’t true in the slightest bit, people living with HIV aren’t and never should be looked at as bad people. We aren’t. We’re simply human beings living and thriving with a chronic illness. Some of the most beautiful people I have ever met in this world are HIV-positive or living with AIDS.

I truly believe that having laws that specifically criminalize folks living with HIV is stigmatizing and can cause more harm to our society than good. However, as a person who has been in a situation in which my ex-boyfriend lied about his status to me, was not on treatment, and had known about his status five years prior to meeting me, there is something in me that feels as though there must be a law on the books for those who do these kinds of things to others. I’m not sure why it is that some people do these things. Maybe it was fear that kept him silent, or maybe he was just in denial. Whatever the reason may be, it’s not okay.

To date, there are currently 34 states that have laws that prosecute individuals for criminal exposure of HIV. That means the person had intent to expose someone to HIV. Even the act of knowing and not disclosing your status could lead you to legal prosecution. The problem with most of these laws is that they aren’t consistent with the current science regarding HIV. For instance, an undetectable viral load for a person living with HIV means that the virus is also untransmittable (it cannot be transmitted to another person via sexual contact). With this new, proven data, adopted by the CDC, one would think that a person living with HIV and having an undetectable viral load would have no need to disclose their status if they aren’t putting anyone at risk. However, our laws say something to the contrary.

Although one may be undetectable, some state laws require that any person living with HIV disclose their status to whomever they come into sexual contact with. This causes more fear and stigma because of the simple fact that our state governments have yet to recognize that persons living with HIV and who have an undetectable viral load pose no threat to anyone. Also, even when using protection (condoms and/or PrEP) some states still require that one discloses their status, which is why these laws must be changed and updated.

Notice I didn’t say to have these laws completely done away with. My reserve and perspective still stand as they relate to those who have intent to transmit the virus to others, as well as with those who blatantly lie about their status while not being on treatment and having a detectable viral load, putting others at a higher risk of contracting HIV. I’m sure many people have their reasons for not disclosing their statuses. For some, it’s the stigma associated with it. Some become upset with the world and just stop caring and feel no need to care about or protect others. Some may really even be in denial.

Whatever the case may be, I am a firm believer that it is necessary and imperative that we express the importance of treatment as prevention as well as lobby for changes to our legal system, one that is more specific and consistent with the science in 2017. We also have a duty to seek justice for those who have been victims of intentional transmission, and we have to ensure that those types of behaviors have some consequences. Maybe my thoughts are personally biased, but whatever the case may be, right is right, and wrong is wrong. We must hold each other accountable for their actions.