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HIV Is Not a Crime: Building a Movement

Biennial Reflections on Creating Cultural Change

July/August 2016

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HIV Is Not a Crime National Training Academy

Credit: PWN-USA

In 2014, at the first HIV Is Not a Crime National Training Academy, in Iowa, participants hailed advocates in the state for successfully modernizing its outdated, stigmatizing HIV criminalization laws. When a presenter at the closing session asked "Which state will be next?" Positive Women's Network - USA (PWN-USA) Colorado advocate Kari Hartel raised her hand on behalf of their state. "I remember seeing her hand go up," Barb Cardell, also of PWN-USA Colorado, recalled, "and thinking, 'Well, damn! Now we have to figure out how to pull this off.' "

Thus the Colorado Mod Squad ("mod" stands for "modernization" of the law), a diverse task force led by women living with HIV, was born. By the time advocates from 34 states and four countries came together for the second HIV Is Not a Crime gathering in Huntsville, Alabama, from May 17-20, 2016, they were celebrating the Mod Squad's victory in the Colorado legislature -- the second such win in the nation. As the new bill awaits the governor's pen, there are 44 U.S. states where such stalwart advocacy is needed: where HIV stigma is still codified into laws, or sentence enhancements, that criminalize people for living with a health condition, and have terrible effects on public health.

"The lesson we have learned from the successes in Iowa and Colorado is that people living with HIV must be meaningfully involved in the decision-making processes," said Tami Haught, who led Iowa's modernization efforts and was a key organizer of both training academies. People living with HIV made up more than two-thirds of the advocates that came to Huntsville to learn how to fight HIV criminalization in their states. There were nearly 300 attendees overall -- almost double the number in 2014.

A biennial event provides a critical benchmark for observing the development of a project, a community, or a movement. "[Since 2014], the effort to combat HIV criminalization has become linked in important ways with related movements addressing racial justice, sex work organizing, drug policy, and penal system reform," said Sean Strub, executive director of the Sero Project, which, along with PWN-USA, co-convened the gathering. "It is increasingly becoming an interwoven quilt of advocacy for profound change in how we understand, pursue, and embrace justice."


Positively Aware asked presenters and participants at the Huntsville training academy to reflect on the progress they wish to see in this epic human rights endeavor in the next two years.

The growth and (hopeful) success of more statewide campaigns. "It took Iowa five years," Strub explained to activist and blogger Mark S. King in a video interview at the training academy. "Colorado did it in two years." (Watch the video at Though a number of states, including Michigan, Georgia, Idaho, and Florida, are now home to nascent campaigns (in part thanks to the 2014 training), predicting the next success story is challenging. "Each state is different, from different laws to different legislative makeup," said Haught. "We were able to provide basic advocacy strategies for everyone; it is then up to state advocates to adapt to fit their specific needs."

Nina Martinez, who engages in HIV decriminalization advocacy in Georgia, would like to see advocates look beyond state legislatures. "Why aren't there more constitutional (judicial) challenges to HIV criminalization laws? Why aren't we appealing to heads of state (executive branch)?" she asked. "Criminalization is the most stigmatized of all advocacy issues, and we're going to have to get creative."

More available data on the realities and impacts of HIV criminalization. To make their case, advocates need data supporting their messages. Legal and social science research on HIV-related criminal cases is sorely lacking. But committed investigators like Trevor Hoppe of the State University of New York at Albany and others, as well as institutions like the Center for HIV Law and Policy and the Williams Institute at UCLA Law School, have contributed to this pipeline of research.

"We need more data on the public health harms of HIV criminalization in the US context," stated Edwin Bernard, one of the world's foremost anti-criminalization advocates and the coordinator of HIV Justice Worldwide. "Rights-based arguments -- convincing as they are for advocates and our intersectional allies, and the reason many of us do this work -- may not be enough to change the hearts and minds of policymakers."

HIV Is Not a Crime National Training Academy

Credit: PWN-USA

Embracing linkages with intersecting communities and movements. "Many of the communities impacted by HIV criminalization are generally at risk for being targeted by law enforcement, may regularly face police brutality, and are unlikely to have good representation in a court of law," said Naina Khanna, executive director of PWN-USA. "We can't fight HIV criminalization as a single battle, without looking at these other issues impacting our community."

According to Ashton Woods -- a Houston-based activist in many intersectional communities, including HIV, LGBT, and the Movement for Black Lives -- the HIV decriminalization movement needs "partnerships with groups, organizations, and persons that are already doing the work around [other forms of] criminalization. That provides a foundation and infrastructure to build a real-time system for information sharing, response to incidents, and a cohesive way to speak with legislators."

Derek Demeri, a sex worker rights advocate in New Jersey, looks forward to the strengthening of these alliances. "Given how these laws are overwhelmingly applied to sex workers across the country," Demeri said, "it is time the sex work community deepens our involvement in these strategic meetings."

Diane Burkholder, an anti-oppression consultant and co-founder of One Struggle KC, which does Movement for Black Lives work in Kansas City, worked in HIV service organizations for many years. She is wary of what she sees as the directive in HIV decriminalization advocacy to "play nice" with lawmakers. "I find this very interesting, considering the momentum of those involved in the Movement for Black Lives," said Burkholder. "If Black folks are disproportionately affected by HIV, especially Black youth ... why aren't we taking their lead?

"This movement against HIV criminalization laws must be made palpable for folks who don't want to engage in conversations about HIV."

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What Do You Say to People Who Support HIV Criminalization?
More on HIV Criminalization

This article was provided by Test Positive Aware Network. It is a part of the publication Positively Aware. Visit TPAN's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.

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