June 10, 2014
Attendees at the 2014 HIV Is Not a Crime conference were treated to a refresher on how a bill becomes a law by no less a classic teacher than Schoolhouse Rock!, the animated musical educational short film series. Jon Hoadley, Vice President of CARES, an HIV/AIDS service organization in Michigan, and Jirair Ratevosian, Legislative Director to U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), moderated the session, where attendees also heard about the progress of the REPEAL HIV Discrimination Act (RHIVDA), which would mandate a review of federal policies affecting HIV criminalization.
Threase Harms, President and CEO of Advocacy Strategies, guided the preparation of "elevator pitches" targeting state and federal elected officials. Each participant in the training session created a pitch that quickly outlined who they were, what organizations they represent, what issues they care about and the change they want the official to support. Then, they got to try them out on actual Iowa state legislators -- one playing the role of a "friendly ally," and the other feigning disinterest.
Later in the afternoon, Sean Strub, Executive Director of the Sero Project, sat down with Iowa Sens. Matt McCoy and Charles Schneider to discuss what happened behind the scenes in the caucus during discussions of the RHIVDA. While the senators assured the assembled group of activists that there was no drama in the caucus, they did admit that more than a few senators and representatives asked "Are you crazy?" when they proposed the bill. One senator originally believed that the thrust of the RHIVDA was to allow HIV-positive people to lie about their status.
Sens. McCoy and Schneider stressed that sticking to science and common sense were the easiest way to gain allies, explaining that HIV criminalization laws discourage testing -- and because testing allows people to know their status and get on treatment if diagnosed, these laws actually could fuel HIV transmission. As the first openly gay member of the Iowa state legislature, McCoy spoke about the pushback against the bill in his own community, sharing that he was particularly concerned about gay men who said that they wanted these laws to remain on the books as punitive measures for those who "infected them with HIV." McCoy firmly came out against that stance, since HIV laws do not stop HIV transmission.
Both senators stressed that HIV criminalization must be framed as a public health issue, allowing more of their legislative peers to come on board to defend a health-focused bill. McCoy noted the importance of the support of Mariannette Miller-Meeks, M.D., former director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, in getting the bill passed.
Schneider stressed that personal stories are important to a degree, and were most effective at galvanizing activist support, but that many senators were often more impressed by data. He explained that personal stories, such as that of Nick Rhoades, may highlight the injustices of several systems, but could only go so far in bringing together coalitions. However, the senators noted that conversations around the criminal penalties, especially considering Rhoades' undetectable viral load and the use of protection, were often very useful in bringing people on board with the issue of HIV criminalization.
Many attendees had questions as to how Republicans got on board with this issue and how it was able to pass unanimously -- a rare feat for any law. Schneider stressed that Republicans can be educated allies and that HIV is not a partisan issue.
Mathew Rodriguez is the community editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.