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Opinion

Just Whose Life Was Ruined in the Michael Johnson Case?

May 29, 2015

Josh Kruger

Josh Kruger

When I was first diagnosed with HIV, my doctor flatly told me that he would rather be HIV positive today than diabetic. At first, it was a hard pill to swallow: Wasn't HIV the boogeyman I had been afraid of my whole life? No, it seemed it wasn't. My experience living with HIV for all these years bears his declaration out.

That is, HIV isn't a death sentence. So, there's really nothing criminal about it.

Based upon recent news out of Missouri, I'm left to believe that some folks still haven't gotten that message and are still relying on medieval thinking when it applies to people they consider "undesirable" -- in this case, people living with HIV.

See, only a reliance on stigma-laden hocus-pocus and a complete unfamiliarity with HIV today could explain the draconian prison sentence of Michael Johnson for "recklessly infecting" some-one with HIV. Basically, the state claims Johnson, a young, attractive HIV-positive black man, did not disclose his HIV status to sex partners.

To add insult to injury, Johnson's jury claims that he only infected one person. If that's true, Johnson's purported crime actually had less of an impact on the "good and decent" American society than the average HIV-positive person, if the statistics are accurate. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the typical untreated HIV-positive person transmits the virus, knowingly or not, to four people .

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By the way, about 30,000 Americans die from gunshot wounds every single year and about 88,000 Americans, again, every single year, die from alcohol-related causes.

As always, fear of the unknown compels human beings to act terribly. In Johnson's case, he wasn't the worst offender at his trial; the jury, the judge and the prosecution, all agents of a state hostile to everyone in the "other" social category -- be they people of color, queer people or HIV-positive people -- are the real scourges on American society today.

The actual threat to American life and limb is rooted in fear and responses to that fear. It ex-plains why, in a nation where government benefits are, in fact, available to ensure people who are HIV positive get access to lifesaving medications, only about 30% of HIV-positive people are on those medications. That's regrettable, because when HIV-positive folks go on medications and maintain an undetectable viral load, they are not infectious.

So, the biggest threat to HIV-negative people is poor access to HIV-related care for HIV-positive people and the symbiotic relationship between fear and avoiding HIV treatment. It's almost as if HIV-positive people are afraid of society throwing them in jail or judging their very existence if they do anything about their virus, like test for it, talk about it openly or treat it.

Well, that's because that's exactly what happens. So, it is likely that due to a combination of fear and stigma, some of them don't test for it, talk about it or treat it whatsoever. And, many of them even make pretty questionable lifestyle decisions as a result.

Johnson was found guilty by this jury of several counts relating to HIV non-disclosure. The jury found that he infected one sex partner. Moreover, the jury saw fit to psychically determine that Johnson willfully attempted to infect another person; and, they included a stigmatizing judgement against him for supposedly exposing a few others to HIV.

First, there are multiple problems with Johnson's trial, not the least of which includes the fact that only 13 of the 52 citizens in Johnson's initial jury pool asserted that being gay wasn't a "sin." In other words, an HIV-positive black man who has sex with other men stood before the judgment of a group of very hostile people -- 75% of whom felt his very existence was an abomination before their imaginary friend.

Second, based upon the scary undertones presented at trial and the rapid-fire sentence from the jury, which deliberated a mere two hours and 20 minutes, it's likely that the jury's primary source of knowledge about HIV/AIDS was the Golden Girls episode where Rose frets over an "AIDS test." If you ask me, that's not a good way to run a civil society.

Third, I have no doubt that Johnson behaved poorly in this situation. It's likely that, for whatever reason, he did not disclose his HIV status to his partners. I fail to see how that somehow negates his sex partners' personal responsibility for their health or warrants a de facto life sentence in prison.

This will sound harsh, but if you want to protect yourself from HIV, you can. If you refuse to take the steps necessary to do so -- for whatever reason, be it misplaced trust or intoxication or a ballpark guess about your partner's HIV status -- whatever happens as a result of your behavior is your responsibility.

I have empathy for people who are in pain, but I have zero sympathy for people who refuse to accept responsibility for their own decisions. And, I do not think we should run a society based upon the regrets of people who succumbed to their "sinful" urges -- to borrow a word from the gospel of Johnson's jury pool.

Having sex involves opening yourself up to risk factors. Sometimes, this means you have a fulfilling life and amazing encounters. Other times, it means you have to get antibiotics or you have to get a shampoo and shave your crotch.

And, for some people -- like me -- it means living with HIV for about 50 years, plus or minus some years based upon personal life choices and other factors.

It's hard to believe, I know, but all of us HIV-positive people were, at one time, HIV negative. We know what it's like to worry about the results of a test, to wonder if we're "fatigued" because of our last dalliance at the bathhouse. We understand what it's like to feel angry at people who "infected us," and, most importantly, we know how alluring it is to ignore our own personal responsibility and ask the daddies and mommies of society to make heads roll. I know exactly what it's like to blame someone for one's HIV status. I did it. Many of us did it, even if just for a short while.

It's OK to feel those things. And, it's OK to even say those things, preferably to a therapist or clergyman or, even better, an experienced HIV-positive person who knows actual facts.

What's not OK, though, is to act on those hurt feelings from the witness stand or through parental proxies out of malicious vengeance in order to completely destroy a person's life because you're too much of a chump to own up to your own actions.

Someone's life has, in fact, been destroyed. If you ask me, though, we're very confused about whose life.

Josh Kruger is an award-winning writer and commentator in Philadelphia. His work often focuses on HIV/AIDS, cultural stigmas and social problems. You can follow him on Twitter @jawshkruger.


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