September 24, 2012
Having HIV is not a crime. Credit: liveconsortium.ning.com.
News has been widely circulated lately about a woman in Dallas, Texas who was killed by her boyfriend because she had HIV and failed to disclose her status prior to sex. The accused, who was allegedly a married man, confessed to the crime by saying "she killed me so I killed her". As shocking and sad as this is, it is eerily becoming more common. Murder cases because of HIV disclosure have been cropping up Sacramento, California, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and even Trinidad. And while D.C. has stepped up its efforts to inform the public more about HIV/AIDS, the city is not immune to murder and stigma surrounding HIV.
There was a case brought to court in July here in the District involving a man named Keith Littlejohn-El who killed his girlfriend who was HIV positive. Although he did not admit to killing her and his defense lawyers claimed he knew she was positive and continued to care for her, the details of her murder point to stigma playing a key factor. Littlejohn-El was in a reportedly tumultuous relationship with his girlfriend of 20 years Selena Knight. According to Knight's friends and relatives he was emotionally and physically abusive. He even once threatened to put up signs in the neighborhood with Knight's picture disclosing her status. When the police came to her Southeast apartment the day of her murder they discovered writing on the wall in marker saying "You gave me HIV. You gave me AIDS." Prosecutors claimed that was an attempt to pin the murder on someone else.
How can a woman leave a man who has not only been abusive to her but has threatened to disrupt her life and shame her in her own neighborhood by disclosing her status? If the physical abuse points are true then it is understandable why she would stay. But the added mental abuse of threatening to tell everyone that knows her that she is HIV positive is a shining example of how stigma is a weapon. Disclosing one's status is never an easy task to do and should be left up to the person to do at their own pace (and preferably before the first sexual encounter). I would never advise keeping one's status a secret from his or her sexual partner. But that conversation is one that must ultimately begin with the positive person initiating it. No one should have to deal with another person "threatening" to tell the world about their illness. Ms. Knight undoubtedly stayed with this abusive man because she feared for physical well being and her life after the relationship ended.
Domestic violence and personal responsibility are also things that have not been taken into account here. Abuse in all forms is very widespread these days and silence condones it. Littlejohn-El was actually confronted by Ms. Knight's friends at one point because of how he treated her. There is no excuse for the violence that continues to oppress women. Abuse can shame the victim and put them at risk for all kinds of things including HIV. Also, one cannot ignore the fact that adults are ultimately responsible for their own safety and well being. That includes using condoms when having sex. It's disturbing to hear Mr. Littlejohn-El or the other suspects in these crimes say that someone "gave" them HIV as if it were forced on them. I'm not blaming the person who became infected but placing the blame solely on the female for "giving" them a preventable disease isn't exactly fair either. Everyone has a choice. We all have the power to prevent HIV and it starts with taking control of your own life and health.
These days the mention of HIV and AIDS can send chills up someone's spine and make them visibly uncomfortable. Facial expressions alone show that this disease, 30+ years after discovery, is still seen as a death sentence. It's no wonder people have trouble getting tested and disclosing their status. The fear of being associated with the disease can be crippling. Sadly, we are seeing a surge of these senseless murders around the country. Having HIV does not equal death by any means but many people still see it as such. Stigma is indeed a weapon and education is our best defense.