Packed into an auditorium on Grinnell College's picturesque campus in Iowa, over a hundred HIV/AIDS activists from all over the U.S. -- and other countries, as well -- gathered for the opening ceremonies of the first HIV Is Not a Crime Conference. Organized by The Sero Project, a network focused on HIV criminalization reform, the conference has been endorsed by dozens of AIDS service organizations, advocacy groups and media outlets (including TheBody.com).
The evening began with a video presentation created by emcee Mark S. King, which included scenes on Iowa's rich history as a bastion of liberal thinking -- and a snippet of The Music Man's "Iowa Stubborn." New York City HIV-positive activist Reginald T. Brown delivered the invocation, reminding the assembled that they were a group of "miracles" and that it was "no mistake" that they were gathered only one week after Iowa passed its HIV decriminalization bill.
Raynard Kington, M.D., the president of Grinnell College, welcomed attendees to the campus, adding that the recently passed Iowa bill brought Iowa "from the most draconian laws to something much more enlightened." He, however, bemoaned the lack of local and national media coverage regarding Iowa's historic step, given that the biggest mainstream press announcement was buried in a Des Moines Register article about a popular bill decriminalizing medical cannabis oil.
Dr. Kington fully embraced the conference's mission, stating that "[Grinnell College] believes institutes like ours are necessary for movements like yours," and cited Grinnell, Iowa's rich history as a bastion of antislavery and abolitionist thinking.
Taking the stage next was Tami Haught, who is widely considered the most vital cog in the machine that got Iowa's decriminalization bill passed. Taking the stage to much fanfare, she opened with two simple sentences: "We did it. We are strong, we are powerful, and we delivered." Tami introduced the 8-minute film "HIV Is Not a Crime," directed by Sean Strub, the executive director of the Sero Project, and featuring three individuals who have experienced HIV criminalization: Sero's Assistant Director Robert Suttle, Nick Rhoades and Monique Moree.
Iowan Nick Rhoades' case galvanized much of the state's reform activism. He took the stage thanking all the silent heroes in the fight -- the doctors, lawyers and professionals who believed in HIV-positive Iowans' rights to live without prosecution. Without these heroes, he said, "we would have approached the finish line, but would not have crossed it."
Reed Vreeland, the communications director for Sero and a member of ACT UP NY, then shared his story of his HIV diagnosis at 2 years old in 1988, when his family was told that he had about six months to live. Vreeland remarked that he was born the same year that Idaho passed its HIV criminalization statute -- the same statute under which the next speaker, Kerry Thomas, is currently serving time in Idaho.
The emotional climax of the night came when Thomas called in from an Idaho corrections facility, where he is incarcerated for having consensual sex with his then-girlfriend, even though he had an undetectable viral load and the act did not result in transmission. He is serving the sixth year in a 30-year sentence, and he has been positive for 25 years. He was diagnosed by a U.S. Air Force doctor in 1988.
"Criminalization is discrimination. Any sane, sober person knows it's wrong," he said. "To those of us who are HIV positive, we deserve to live freely in our communities." When asked to describe some of the challenges for people living with HIV who are incarcerated, Thomas relayed that his problems were not exclusively medical, and more so social. He said people with HIV deserve confidentiality, but also support services to deal with their HIV status.
Spiritual support is very important to not just those who are incarcerated but all HIV positive people. -Kerry Thomas #HIVisNotaCrime
During the question and answer period, Jeton Ademaj of ACT UP NY pointed out the irony that Thomas was convicted the same year that the Swiss Statement was released -- a statement that explicitly said that having an undetectable viral load greatly reduced the risk of transmission. Thomas responded, "These cases have nothing to do with transmissions. The target seems to be intimate connection while HIV positive, which allows people to disregard medical facts." When Thomas asked the judge to consider his undetectable viral load during his relationship, the judge dismissed his medical records, saying they were not relevant to his case.
Jeton @actupny: Jerry's sentence began same yr as Swiss Statement on near-zero #HIV transmission by PLHIV w/ low viral load #HIVIsNotACrime
Strub closed the night by asking that this event be a spiritual successor to the Denver Principles, the cornerstone of the self-empowerment movement among people living with HIV. Asking the crowd to "examine their privileges," whether they be race, class, sexual orientation, gender, HIV status, or something else , he said only through examining how we see the world can we create change. "We can change lives, we change the world in which we live," he said.
Mathew Rodriguez is the community editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.