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The Crime of Being HIV Positive

July 27, 2012

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In Howell's case, the staff sergeant tested HIV-negative. She was brought to trial for not disclosing her HIV status, despite the fact that both parties consented to sex without a condom.

The simple fact is that it takes two to have protected sex, said Laurel Sprague, the Sero Project's principal investigator on its recent study. So, why should one person be sent to jail when both parties are responsible?

"I'm someone who just four years ago didn't see why criminalization was a problem," said Sprague, an HIV-positive woman. "My perspective has changed completely. ... Using the law in this way serves only to scapegoat people living with HIV."

In 11 states, a person found guilty of a HIV-specific crime must register as a sex offender. In other words, regardless of whether HIV was actually transmitted, a person could be labeled for the rest of his life as a sex offender, joining rapists and pedophiles in one of the most stigmatized social groups on the planet.

Like Howell, many people don't even know whether the law requires them to disclose their status with their sexual partners. The Sero Project surveyed more than 2,000 HIV-positive Americans on HIV criminalization issues. Almost two-thirds didn't know their state laws on the matter.

But the bombshell in the Sero study is this: One quarter of the respondents said they knew people who would not get tested for HIV for fear of ensuing prosecution. More than 40 percent of respondents felt that was reasonable.

Take the test, risk arrest, as the activist slogan goes.

In other words, criminalization causes more fear and stigma, which in turn causes people to not get tested, which in turn makes more HIV infections the likely outcome.


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Breaking the Silence

Old school soul music and coffee smells filled the room warmly. Howell finished up breakfast with her husband Steven in the stylish café at the Rouge Hotel in Washington, D.C.

They were in town for the International AIDS Conference, where Monique was advocating and telling her story. She was, by all appearances, happily married and doing well on her new career path: HIV advocacy.

"My kids are always like 'Momma's off saving the world again! She has to go save the world,' " Howell said, laughing.

She started a nonprofit organization called Monique's Hope for a Cure Outreach Services, located in Holly Hill, S.C., the same rural town where her father pastors a nondenominational church. She's had success telling her story and advocating in nearby schools. She strives to be a resource for the community.

"I try to just meet people where they're at," Howell said.

It wasn't an easy path. After her ordeal with the criminal trial, Howell was in and out of mental health care, she said, battling severe depression. Her resurrection aptly began in her father's church in 2009 when she stood up and told the entire congregation that she was HIV-positive and asked for their prayers.

"People started crying and embracing me," she said. "There was no program after that. That was the program."

In November 2009, she met Steven Moree, a soft-spoken former crane operator who did not shy away from Howell because of her status.

"It really didn't bother me," he said. "I had a little education on HIV, so I said 'OK, we can work with this.'"

Moree, who sat silently for an hour or so while Howell told her story, lit up while describing Howell's ability to connect with teens on the issue of HIV.

"I'm honored to stand behind her 100 percent," he said. "I'm amazed at how she can get down on their level. Anyone who can catch a teenager's attention like that, you're doing something special."

Howell hasn't yet had anyone in her community come out as HIV-positive to her. But she knows they're out there. The HIV/AIDS prevalence rate for Orangeburg County, where Monique's organization operates, is 565.8 per 100,000 people, according to the most recent statistics provided by the South Carolina Department of Public Health.

And Howell hopes in time to connect with them.

"A lot of people just keep the silence," she said. "So, how do we break that silence?"

Gregory Trotter can be reached at gtrotter@aidschicago.org.

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This article was provided by AIDS Foundation of Chicago.
 
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