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How HIV Stigma Compounded the Trauma of a Violent Anti-Gay Attack

June 29, 2016

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Stigma at Court

I arrived at Ingham County Circuit Court early on June 22 for my two attackers' sentencing hearing. As I sat in the hallway, alone, I overheard one of the defense attorneys layout his strategy to demonize us, the victims: "You know, like child molesters," he said.

His plan was to present the men, not as anti-gay predators motivated by hate, but as men who had beaten and robbed us simply because a convenient opportunity had presented itself. That flew in the face of both men's confessions.

The judge rejected the defense arguments and accepted the sentencing report. The other victim who had come forward and filed a report submitted a written impact statement. I made the choice to present my impact statement in court, verbally, so the judge could see me.

As I laid out the story of the stolen medications, she stopped me after I mentioned HIV.

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"Do I need to have the defendants tested?" she asked me. "I am sending them to prison, do they need to be tested?"

For a moment I was dumbfounded. These two men had handcuffed me, beat me, robbed me and left me helpless with my hands behind my back, and I was being asked whether I had posed a risk to them? I was, for that moment, a viral vector, not a human being, not a victim of a heinous crime.

"No," I replied. "There was no sex, your honor."

I was allowed to complete my statement generally uninterrupted.


A Long Judicial History of HIV Stigma

Trevor Hoppe, a professor of sociology at the University of Albany, SUNY, did his Ph.D. dissertation on HIV criminalization in Michigan. He released a study published in the journal Social Science and Medicine in 2014, which analyzed how HIV was treated by Michigan courts during HIV nondisclosure prosecutions. He accomplished this by reviewing trial transcripts and media reports from Michigan cases he was able to locate.

His findings are more than disappointing: It was routine for the courts to minimize the science related to transmission and to refer to HIV as a death sentence.

"In only four of the 58 cases did the complainant(s) allege to have contracted HIV from the defendant. Yet, in order to frame nondisclosure as a moral, criminal problem, prosecutors and judges continue to deploy analogies to murder and death sentences throughout the study period," he wrote in that 2014 study. "If the cases had proceeded on medical, instead of moral, grounds, it would have been much more difficult to establish harm or criminal negligence."


Culpability for the State

As I've shown, Michigan's policies and laws are partially culpable in this case. The insane law forced me to disclose my status before even meeting those men. That made me extra vulnerable to the ensuing violence.

Some years ago, the state health department investigated whether to change Michigan's law. But it stopped that investigation three drafts into a final report that would have recommended amending the law to require proof of intent to transmit and actual transmission. Officials still have not explained on the record why they abandoned that project and its recommendations.

But openly gay State Rep. Jon Hoadley (D-Kalamazoo) is working to introduce legislation as soon as July that would eliminate Michigan's felony law. In its place, Hoadley's legislation would create two separate misdemeanors. The high misdemeanor would subject those convicted of violating it to up to a year in jail. The low misdemeanor would subject those convicted of violating it to up to 93 days in jail. Both new laws would require prosecutors prove there was both intent to transmit and activity verified to transmit HIV. The high misdemeanor would be used for those who intended to and actually did transmit the virus. The low misdemeanor would be used for those who intended to transmit the virus, but don't.

Last weekend Hoadley told me via phone that the crimes perpetrated against me are just the latest example of how Michigan's laws are harming attempts to end the epidemic and endangering people living with HIV.

Todd A. Heywood is a freelance writer based in Lansing, Michigan. He specializes in writing about HIV policy issues in the U.S. Find him on Facebook and @ToddHeywood on Twitter.


Copyright © 2016 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.

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