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When People With HIV Became Suicide Bombers

April 2, 2014

Maybe we should blame the criminal prosecutions of people with HIV on the mythical legend of Gaetan Dugas, also known by his slanderous nickname, Patient Zero. Dugas was a gay flight attendant from Canada who, according to Randy Shilts' 1987 book And the Band Played On, was among the first people with HIV in the United States.

Gaetan Dugas

As the story goes, energetic Dugas (right) spent lots of time in the very early 1980's getting laid in practically every city with an airport, even after learning he had the mysterious new "gay cancer." He wanted to go out with a bang, the book claimed, and he didn't particularly care who he might infect in the process. The book repeated rumors that after sex with bath house tricks Dugas would point out his skin lesions and then announce, "now you have it."

Except the story isn't true. Two years ago, Shilts' former editor admitted the book needed a "literary device" and had encouraged Shilts to create the epidemic's first "AIDS monster." The scandalous sex life of Gaetan Dugas fit the bill nicely. Dugas died in 1984, never having the opportunity to answer his accusers regarding his alleged behaviors.

Instead of placing responsibility with everyone having sex, the book painted people with HIV as suicide bombers. The damage, to the truth and to the public image of people with AIDS, still reverberates today.

Laws exist in more than 30 States that criminalize people with HIV for not disclosing their status to sexual partners. Even where there are no HIV-specific laws, charges range from assault to attempted murder to bioterrorism. It should be noted that the vast majority of prosecutions do not involve the transmission of HIV. Often, the person charged used a condom, had an undetectable viral load, or engaged in sexual behavior that could not have infected their partner.

Anyone with HIV and a pissed off ex-lover should feel worried, since these cases often become a matter of whom you believe. Prosecutors and unfriendly juries are often shocked that people with HIV are having sex at all. They couldn't care less about condoms or undetectable viral loads. They just want people who don't disclose their status to face serious charges.

A lot of people see this as righteous and are taking the bait. Many of us know someone infected by a sex partner who lied about their status, and we want that jerk to pay for it. This sense of vengeance plays into the hands of a conservative legal system that is more than happy to send some diseased fags to jail. For a really long time. Regardless of the actual harm inflicted.

This issue is a real mine field of emotion, justice, science, and payback. Fortunately, an upcoming event will bring together advocates, legal experts and people living with HIV to discuss criminalization and map out a strategy to address it.

HIV is not a crime

"HIV is Not a Crime" is the first national conference on HIV criminalization. It will be held on June 2-5, 2014, in Grinnell, Iowa. Yes, Iowa. Some of the most effective activism around this issue is happening there, where State legislators are actually re-thinking their own laws and health policies as a result of smart advocacy and education. I urge you to alert your local HIV advocates about this important event.

Regardless of your views on criminalization, we can all agree that anyone who intentionally seeks to harm another person should be held accountable for it. That's why we have laws against hurting other people.

But why are there laws on the books specific to HIV non-disclosure? HIV has its very own laws ordering people to disclose if they have it. The same cannot be said for other infectious viruses such as Human Papillomavirus (HPV) or Hepatitis C, which actually kill more people each year. The reason, in the mind of many advocates, is because those viral conditions are not as closely associated with gay sexuality. Or race. Or the disenfranchised. I hope you're getting the picture.

Criminalization is not limited to whether or not someone discloses, even if those scenarios capture our imagination the most. Laws have other ways to punish those with HIV.

Charges for an unrelated crime can be elevated if the defendant is HIV positive. Prostitution, or spitting at a cop, or punching somebody in the face in a bar, can carry more severe sentences based on the fact the accused is HIV positive.

In other words, defendants are guilty of living with HIV. That should give you real pause.

Surveys conducted by The SERO Project indicate that knowing about the risk of being charged with non-disclosure is an impediment to HIV testing. After witnessing how people with HIV are being treated by the judicial system, getting tested might feel like exposing yourself to potential prosecution.

These prosecutions do not rely upon the context of HIV disclosure, either. "The moral obligation to disclose increases with the degree of risk present," said Sean Strub, founder of The SERO Project and one of the organizers of the Iowa conference, "but the context of the sexual encounter is also a factor. In the context of a committed relationships, the disclosure obligation is much greater than in a sex club, for example."

The key point here is morality. Disclosing your status is a moral issue, not a criminal one. Even in the worst years of AIDS, when the virus reliably killed you, we called our doctors to start treatment when we got infected. We didn't call the cops. Blaming someone for our own risk behaviors seemed ludicrous. It still does.

You wouldn't know it from news reports, which often feature race-driven cases of predatory men lurking around the countryside infecting the populous. Suicide bombers continue to titillate the media.

Look closely at the stories and you will find that "not disclosing" is usually equated with "intentionally infecting." It's as if sex of any kind on the part of someone with HIV is malicious. One side effect of HIV infection, it would seem, is a pathological bloodlust.

Never forget that these juicy legal stories represent the lives of real people. Sentences amounting to decades are being wielded. The convicted are having to register as sex offenders. In the often confusing landscape of sexual risk and negotiation, the person with HIV is facing grave consequences for decisions often made in the heat of the moment, or simply because they chose to protect their privacy when no risk to their partner existed.

HIV criminalization does nothing to reduce the impact of a new HIV infection. It doubles it.


ALSO ...

When People With HIV Became Suicide Bombers

There's a lot of great reporting and blogging about this issue right now, and here's some of the best: Jake Sobo, the always intriguingly transparent blogger behind Promiscuous Gay Nerd, shares the frightening encounter a poz friend had when he visited his local health department and ended up accused of maliciously spreading HIV. HealthlineNews has posted an update on cases in Iowa that involve the very advocates doing such inspiring work there. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has made the gutsy choice to post an essay on the media's role in perpetuating ignorance about criminalization (even though many of their usual media outlets refused to run it). The most comprehensive piece on criminalization, though, could be "Sex, Lies, and HIV," a ProPublica piece recently re-posted by HIVPlus Magazine that examines several of the most high-profile cases.

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More From This Resource Center

Undetectable Viral Load and HIV Prevention: What Do Gay and Bi Men Need to Know?

Do HIV-Negative Gay Men Need Condoms if They're on PrEP? Here's What I Tell My Patients

This article was provided by Visit Mark's live blog.
See Also
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Reader Comments:

Comment by: Kevin McCarthy (San Diego) Thu., Jun. 26, 2014 at 2:28 pm UTC
It has been almost 35 years since the 'gay cancer,' and you all still are talking about it taking no responsibility as a community.

I take huge offence to the notion that HIV is a "viral condition associated with gay 'sexuality'." But it is true young gay men believe HIV is simply "part of being gay." I'm told "HIV is easier to manage then diabitis.

I spent the 80's and a good part of the 90's in baths and otherwise slutting around. A viral infection has never been any part of my 'sexuality!' I had one rule, slap a god damn rubber on it when poking in the butt. Perhaps laws aimed at a virus that is now defined as "part of gay sexuality," may actually be healthier for the community, thus perhaps be welcomed.

HIV has never been treated like other infectious deceases. The gay community demanded it not be tracked like other STD's at the time. It was the gay community who lobbied the FDA to fast track drugs for the treatment of AIDS. A "bug chaser" is not interested in the other infections that will come along with the HIV.
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Comment by: Sibongile (South Africa) Thu., May. 1, 2014 at 2:09 am UTC
Im wiping my tears after reading this insert, living with HIV is a life changing situation, and to be an offender triples it, its sad to hear how you become deprived of life because of being infected, I AM ALSO AFRAID TO DISCLOSE because of not knowing how my partner will react once i tell him, the sad part of the sentence is that even when you have protected sex you still get punished.
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Comment by: Johnny Shutters (New York, NY) Tue., Apr. 29, 2014 at 7:24 pm UTC
Bitter Bitter Bitter!! We are positive, get over yourselves. Move on... Either you can let HIV consume you or you can consume it... Let go of the hate... That's all. Disclosure or not, it is everyones responsibility to protect themselves and practice safe sex.. Assume everyone is positive period. Really not much else to talk about here... I love life and have let go of the hate... 75% of your health is your attitude. so be happy happy happy you are alive. I know I am...
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Comment by: Ryan (Fort Wayne) Fri., Apr. 25, 2014 at 3:54 pm UTC
I'm sorry but anyone who is HIV +, and I am, has a moral duty to disclose their status when having sex. It's not your life you're potentially playing with. The other individual does have a right to know. I'm fed up with people not taking responsibility for their actions. Yes, there are very discriminatory laws towards people with HIV but that does not negate the fact that we have a duty to be moral and honest about our status. There is no right to hide something like this from an individual one may be sexually active with.
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Replies to this comment:
Comment by: Harvett (East Cleveland, OH) Mon., Apr. 28, 2014 at 4:05 pm UTC

Ryan I agree with you whole heartedly! This goes for any infectious disease (including the common cold) if you have it warn someone. Don't take away their choices.
Comment by: JS (SF) Tue., Apr. 29, 2014 at 7:59 pm UTC
Ryan, I'm sorry but I must disagree. It is no more a moral duty of a positive person to disclose his/her status than that of his/her sexual partner.

Granted I'm a proponent of having such adult conversations with my sexual partners. But I do not do it because I have some "moral duty".

It's 2014 people. It isn't the early 80's/90's where we didn't know what HIV/AIDS was. I'm sure some live under a rock. But Public Health has provided exceptional information very broadly in the USA (can't speak to all the far corners of the world).

Get tested. Know your status. Discuss it with your sexual partners and make the right sexual decisions for the two (or however many) of you. The rest is no one else's business, including law makers and enforcers.

My two cents.
Comment by: TonyDewiit (Newark, NJ) Tue., Apr. 29, 2014 at 8:10 pm UTC
Ryan, I could not agree more with you! While laws enforcing HIV disclosure might seem heavy handed, they exist for the exact reason you mentioned - people have a duty to be moral and honest about their HIV status. Someone with HIV had sex with me without disclosing first - it was extremely traumatic to me. After the police got involved, the other person was told not to have sex with people without disclosing first. This makes me wonder how many people have been infected by others who knew that they had HIV. Thank you again for making a stand against HIV.
Comment by: Sharon (Toronto) Wed., Apr. 30, 2014 at 7:44 pm UTC
Yes, we have a moral obligation to disclose, but the general public has a moral obligation to react in a civilized, non discriminatory, rejecting manner. You can't have it both ways.
Comment by: Joey Ramos (Teaneck NJ) Thu., May. 1, 2014 at 8:18 pm UTC
I must say that people should always use protection, HIV is not the only thing going around, there is herpes, hepatitis and much more.
It is a common sense to protect yourself.
I was infected with HIV and Herpes and it was my own fault for not thinking at the moment and NOT using protection. I do not know when it was, neither I know who gave it to me, all I know is it was my own fault.
People go to clubs, drink, smoke, etc and they totally forget at the time of sex to disclose their status or simply feel embarrassed or scared to do it due to REJECTION AND DISCRIMINATION.
THERE IS NO NEED TO DISCLOSE ANYTHING, all you need to do is to USE PROTECTION and make sure your partner agrees with it. If you are poz and you want to use protection and your sex partner doesn't want to, then it is up to him or her, you already said you wanted to use protection and if they don't want to use it then just don't have sex.
Comment by: Mazz (London UK) Mon., May. 5, 2014 at 9:55 pm UTC
What a lot of nonsense! Moral crusading - whose morals? If a person is on effective ART, undetectable VL etc and uses a condom for a casual encounter (is that moral, just to have sex for pleasure?! How naughty)they should not feel morally obligated to disclose. No risk, no problems. Educate yourselves on the science and enjoy a great sex life. Lighten up and get laid people :)

Comment by: Edwin Blessing (Dallas TX) Thu., Apr. 24, 2014 at 10:34 pm UTC
Yep HEP C took 6 mo to destroy with Telepivir for 3 of them at 70k dollars medicare/medicaid paid for. The HIV drugs at 4,000 a month will go on forever it seems even if undetectable since 94. My drugs don't become generic until 2028. and by then I will be very old. I seriously think the pharmaceutical stock share holders encourage this and often make some small change to keep drug prices beyond belief. Never worried about criminalization because the guy who gave it to me died in 95. Punishment enough. And I don't trick with 365 people a year like most all gays. Marriage ha. why?
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Comment by: Jermaine Wright (Atlanta, GA) Fri., Apr. 4, 2014 at 9:34 pm UTC
I LOVE this, Mark!!!!!!!!!!!
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