Christian Hui is determined to end HIV criminalization laws. He is the community engagement coordinator of Asian Community AIDS Services, an organization that he credits with helping to save his life after he tested HIV positive in 2003. He also helped form the Canadian Positive People's Network, for which he serves as community engagement officer.
His dedication to make connections in the struggle to end HIV criminalization led him to drive from Toronto to Huntsville, Alabama, for the second HIV Is Not a Crime conference in May 2016. There, he and 16 other delegates from across Canada connected with people in the United States and Mexico who are also fighting to end HIV criminalization laws. TheBody.com talked with Christian about his approaches to taking down criminalization.
The Legal System Should Follow the Science
As someone living with HIV and as an activist, I would say HIV criminalization is often based on morals, that it's very ideologically moral-driven. As someone who works within the sexual field, I strongly believe that sex is something that all sexual partners need to [negotiate]. Everyone who partakes in that activity needs to be responsible for the safety of themselves, as well as of their partners.
We need to actually take in new considerations within the Canadian context. Currently the ruling is, if you have an undetectable viral load, and you use a condom, then you don't need to disclose. But then the science is changing: What does detectability mean? Does it really pose a real possibility of transmission?
The changes within the legal system need to come into agreement with the science of HIV. If people can be healthy and have an undetectable viral load, and if consensual sex is negotiated, I think then people living with HIV should not be in the situation that they would be criminalized, under any circumstance.
The United Nations has stated that we should not utilize criminal laws to criminalize people living with HIV. When countries continue doing that, it's a violation of human rights. I think the more important point is how can we engage the broader community to really understanding why criminalizing HIV does not actually help prevent HIV.
Conversations Based on Misinformation
I think a lot of times these conversations are often based on misinformation. And there's a lot of stigma around sex, a lot of stigma around HIV. When the media continues to perpetuate stories where people are arrested or even convicted for HIV nondisclosure cases, for people who may be charged but before going to court, I don't believe that these people should have their photos released in the media and be portrayed as sexual predators. That's kind of presumed guilty before proven, right?
That kind of fear tactic has not proven to be effective in sexual health prevention, be it HIV or sexually transmitted infections. So why would that actually help people?
Encourage testing. Encourage ways for people to openly talk about sex without shame. I think the more openly we can actually talk about HIV and sex, and perhaps about why criminalization is actually the wrong approach, then people would get a better understanding.
Using the existing legal system of criminalization doesn't often resolve a lot of the issues. We must find alternative ways to address criminalization. Perhaps we can explore utilizing restorative justice as a way where when a person is harmed the balance has been disturbed. And this restorative justice approach comes from an indigenous approach for which community harmony and balance is key.
Let's say if someone may have caused harm to a person or community, then there needs to be an open discussion to see what happened and how. And the person who is perceived to be the one causing harm should have the right to actually present his or her side of the story, with the support of the community, as well. So the community is actually assisting the persons involved in these incidences to create a sustainable solution.
I believe locking people up does not offer solutions. Within the prison system, there's not adequate opportunities for inmates to gather what they need to help prevent HIV, either. The health of prisoners has been overlooked, be it using condoms, or just accessing needles.
And if people who are living with HIV are criminalized and sent to prison, I think having these kind of regressive policies actually does not support the government's wish to achieve lower transmission.
The Fear Is Very Real
For me, knowing how the situation is right now as a person living with HIV, as a peer of other people living with HIV, the fear is very real. Often it prevents people from openly discussing their needs, their concerns, their fear.
How we need to support decriminalization is that communities really should come together. Communities need to understand the legal implications. They need to understand their rights. They need to understand how perhaps different communities, be it gender, racialized background, socioeconomic status, behaviors -- such as, perhaps, if you're a person who performs sex work, a person who uses substances -- how these different sectors intersect, and for us to find ways to ask the community with the support of existing organizations such as the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, which has been advocating on this issue for a long time.
I think it's time for us to really engage the community in these discussions so people living with HIV can feel confident in knowing what their rights are, knowing how to discuss HIV criminalization issues and knowing, if they do get charged (hopefully not, but if they do), what are the steps they need to do.
As primarily a racialized person, I think [about] how to disseminate these kinds of information to our communities so that it makes sense to them.
HIV criminalization is a very broad issue. Sometimes the utilization of language and the types of various degrees of stigma or social factors impede a person's ability to really address HIV criminalization as an issue.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.