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Who or What Got You Involved in HIV/AIDS Activism in the Black Community?

A Part of Our "Word on the Street" Series

February 25, 2014


Robert Suttle

Robert Suttle

HIV/AIDS Advocate

It was eight years after my own HIV diagnosis and prison release that I got involved in doing HIV prevention and treatment work. Needing a new life plan, I volunteered at my local AIDS service organization, which eventually hired me full-time as a case manager and prevention specialist. I worked with other young African-American, HIV-positive men who have sex with men.

I, later, realized these unique experiences that have affected my life -- my HIV status and my incarceration -- were complex and sometimes difficult to separate. It is difficult to address HIV without addressing how interconnected it is with a whole range of social concerns.

People of color, especially young black men, gay or straight, are at the highest risk of incarceration and at the highest risk of acquiring HIV. Both represent a terrible injustice, but when you add HIV criminalization, it becomes an injustice of historic proportions. I was convicted for failing to disclose to a former partner, who then went to the police and pressed charges against me after we broke up.

Today, I speak out loud about HIV criminalization, recognizing it as an obstacle to HIV prevention -- and that it really is creating a disabling legal environment for those of us with HIV while labeling us primarily as potential infectors or viral vectors, who must be regulated, controlled, prosecuted and imprisoned.

We can prevent HIV by reducing stigma, or we can prosecute HIV, by locking up those of us who have it. But we can't do both.

Photo credit: Jennifer Doherty

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