I was infected with HIV in June of 1993. I have a vivid recollection of this incident and I knew, perhaps instinctively at the time, that I had been infected. I just knew.
Six months later, I sat in a claustrophobic, closet-sized room at the Atlanta Gay Center, listening to an HIV counselor give me results of the anonymous HIV test I had taken two weeks earlier. I tested positive. I was infected. I had my doctor give me the test one more time just to be sure. I was still positive.
I am one of those people who knows exactly who, what, when, where, why and how this happened. (Okay, I admit to being a little fuzzy on the why part of it, although I've grown attached to this theory: The universe thought I needed a kick in the butt.) In the past five years, I have discovered there is little comfort in knowing who or how. My story is simple. I was raped by two men in June of 1993. At least one of them was positive. After years of being sexually responsible, practicing safer sex and seemingly always being the one to start the dialogue with any potential sexual partner, I made an error in judgment and ended up raped and infected with HIV.
It took me five full years to tell someone I'd been raped. It took me that long to even say the word rape. Ironically, at the time of the rape, I was in counseling! Yet I still could not bring myself to tell my psychologist what had happened. I was also in a relationship and I couldn't tell my partner what happened either. I told him I'd tested positive. There was a little discussion. Our sex life diminished and eventually became nonexistent.
I have only recently been able to talk about the rape. Back in July, I was being interviewed by a friend for a book he's writing on people living with HIV. With tape recorder rolling, he asked a couple of direct questions, and for the first time in five years, I felt compelled to tell the truth. That was like a watershed event for me and I have since been able to tell a psychologist, my physician and three close friends. I will not, however, tell it to Jerry Springer or Ricki Lake. And I have decided not to describe myself as a victim because that word feels like a self-inflicted wound to me.
Someone I told about the rape responded, "If they did that to me, I'd burn their house down." Well, I certainly could have done that. Of course, I'd still be positive. And probably headed to prison.
Did I have any legal recourse after the rape? Maybe. According to Georgia law, "an individual who knows he or she is infected with HIV and knowingly engages in intercourse ... without telling his/her status is guilty of a felony, subject to imprisonment." I don't know what would be more horrible -- the rape itself, or filing a police report for male on male rape, finding an attorney and reliving the entire incident in a court of law in front of a jury of my so-called peers, very likely none of whom would be gay or lesbian. I was not prepared to go there.
My situation is an extreme example of what some are now calling criminal HIV transmission. Already, 29 states have laws that make an HIV+ person who engages in acts such as unprotected sex, spitting, biting or sharing needles liable for criminal prosecution, whether or not infection even occurs. One third of those states adopted these laws within the last two years. This year alone, 16 states introduced such measures. A lot of legislators and proponents have touted these laws as prevention measures directed at people who know they have HIV but recklessly or intentionally endanger others. But these supporters of HIV criminalization really have punishment on their minds. And that's all.
Criminalization of HIV transmission is certainly not about prevention. These laws are about punishment and retribution. These laws do little more than satisfy an ill society's hunger for justice. To call criminalization a prevention method or public-health measure is legislative claptrap. The reality is that criminalization of HIV transmission is not a public-health measure designed to slow the spread of HIV; it does nothing to prevent new infections. It is unconscionable to talk about punitive measures and pass judgment on HIV+ individuals when this country's prevention methods and programs are so wretched. Our national public health efforts are so inferior, in fact, that a telephone survey of 1,700 Americans last year revealed that 55% of respondents believe they can contract HIV through sharing a glass, and 41% thought you could acquire it using a public toilet. Prevention is about educating people out of their ignorance, creating needle exchange programs and promoting condom use. Ultimately, HIV criminalization laws will just undermine real prevention strategies.
Those of you who read this column regularly know that I encourage those of us who are HIV+ to disclose our status to potential sexual partners. But I do not hold the view that preventing transmission rests solely or primarily on the positive person. When two people consent to sex, both must share responsibility for protection and prevention. Positive or negative, there needs to be some discussion before you ever enter the bedroom. It's much too late in this epidemic for naive statements like, "She didn't ask, so I didn't tell." Don't ask, don't tell is a foolish concept regardless of whether you're in the military or the bedroom. Talk to each other. Take responsibility. Tell the truth. Trust your gut. Take care of yourself.
A law could not have prevented me from being raped. Nor will it protect anyone from infection with HIV or a myriad of other sexually transmitted diseases. These HIV criminalization laws are all about blame, revenge and retribution. They ignore the consensual element of sex and abolish a negative person's personal responsibility. They don't apply until after the fact, making them grossly ineffective as a prevention strategy.