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With #EndBadHIVLaws, Campaign Uses Social Media to Combat HIV Criminalization

December 30, 2015

Marvell L. Terry II

Marvell L. Terry II

In the years since social media was introduced, the world has vastly changed. Often social media is chided as a vehicle that limits actual human interaction, a forum that spreads ignorance and generally unsavory opinions, and a place that ruins friendships, marriages and families. But in actuality, social media is a tool. Like a hammer, it can be used to break things apart or to build them.

Recently, several HIV and LGBT groups joined together to use the reach of social media to spread knowledge and spur action on a serious legal problem -- the criminalization of HIV -- with the hashtag #EndBadHIVLaws.

"Why are we putting people in jail for having HIV? In more than 30 states people living with HIV can be tried and imprisoned simply because a partner accuses them of hiding their HIV status," said Marvell Terry, II, an HIV/AIDS project fellow at the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).

"It doesn't matter if you used a condom or were on protective medication, or even if the accusation is false. All that matters is that you're living with HIV," he said in a recently released video for the #EndBadHIVLaws campaign:

#EndBadHIVLaws is a campaign sponsored by the HRC, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Center for HIV Law & Policy. Together, these groups are turning to Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media to inspire action to end laws that target people living with HIV.

According to the Center for HIV Law & Policy, "Thirty-two states and two U.S. territories have HIV-specific criminal statutes and thirty-six states have reported proceedings in which HIV-positive people have been arrested and/or prosecuted for consensual sex, biting, and spitting." At least 213 arrests and prosecutions occurred from 2008 to 2014 alone.


Laws criminalizing HIV were first enacted in the mid-'80s; by 1988, 15 states had passed HIV criminalization laws. In 1990, Congress passed the Ryan White CARE Act, which originally included an amendment that required states to certify they had the ability to prosecute people living with HIV accused of intentionally spreading the virus. Without this certification, states were not able to obtain federal funds made available under this act.

"Fearful and ignorant was a bad look then and it's a bad look now," Terry said in the video.

In an earlier release from HRC after the HIV criminalization conviction of Michael Johnson, Terry spoke out as a person living with HIV, saying, "This could have been me. This could have been anyone living with HIV."

In the 25 years since Congress passed the Ryan White Act, the science behind treating HIV has markedly improved. Researchers at the 21st Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections reported that people living with HIV who achieve an undetectable viral load through treatment can reduce the likelihood of transmitting HIV to a partner by at least 96%.

While these statistics are laudable, Terry warns that HIV criminalization laws might fuel an increase in the number of people not getting treatment and the spread of HIV.

"We're giving people a reason not to know their status, since they're only legally liable if they do," he said. "With that, we're driving people away from the medical system."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that one in eight people living with HIV in the U.S. are unaware that they have HIV.

In the month since the #EndBadHIVLaws campaign was launched, many have turned to their social media channels to share their appreciation for the campaign.

Thanks TAAN for sharing this video. Lots of really helpful and clear information on HIV criminalization laws, the...

Posted by Healthy and Free Tennessee on Wednesday, December 9, 2015

In March, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) introduced a House bill to repeal existing policies that encourage HIV discrimination. The bill is cosponsored by eight Democrats and one Republican, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.). The bill has been in committee since March but is unlikely to be enacted, according to Gov Track, a site maintained by the U.S. government that tracks the progress of bills. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate in December by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and co-sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and four other Democrats.

Althea Fung is the community editor for For her thoughts on the healthcare industry, food and other random musing, check out her personal website, follow her on Twitter or stalk her on Facebook.

Copyright © 2015 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.

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