When I see documentaries or fiction films about the early days of the AIDS epidemic that focus on the lives and relationships of gay men, I see a lot of people taking care of one another. In many cases, one partner might find out he's HIV positive, the other partner finds out his status, the two stay together, and one takes care of the other until one or both are met with the unfortunate fate of certain death. I'm sure it also happened that many men, who were brave enough to finally disclose their status at a time when there were no available treatments to keep them alive, were in fact deserted by their lovers and left to other family and friends to care for them until they died.
But in neither scenario do I recall seeing images of a man, upon learning of his partner's HIV status, sneaking quietly into another room and dialing 9-1-1 to report to the police that he may have been exposed to the virus.
And yet, that is happening. And I'd ask all gay men reading this to please stop.
There are laws that criminalize the lack of disclosing one's HIV status to sexual partners in about 34 states. Some make the act of "exposing" someone to HIV a felony crime. And some make the act of not disclosing one's status to sexual partners a crime. Now, we can debate the fact that "exposing" someone to HIV is often based on ideas about transmission that are 30 years old and no longer relevant. Spitting doesn't transmit HIV, for example. And we also know if a person is on antiretroviral therapy and the virus is suppressed in their body, they cannot transmit the virus through sexual contact -- even if it's sex without a condom (or what we call undetectable equals untransmittable, or U=U).
While it's important that we all know the latest information about HIV transmission, it still shouldn't matter. No gay or bisexual men, as maligned as we all are still in the world, should ever think the best solution to deal with HIV -- whether you contract the virus or not -- is to use the police and the specter of a prison sentence.
I've been working on issues of HIV criminalization for about 10 years. And in the past few years, I've done some support on two particular cases where gay men have opted to bring down the force of punitive police and prison onto people they say didn't disclose they were HIV positive, even if they didn't contract HIV. Michael Johnson is a young black gay man in Missouri, currently serving a 10-year sentence for exposing several sex partners to HIV, only one of whom contracted HIV. Whether or not he disclosed his status is something only the people involved know. But the person who called the police, and who is HIV positive, says he contracted HIV from Johnson. He does not say that the sex they had was coerced, or anything approaching assault. It was consensual.
More recently, 24-year-old Sanjay Johnson is facing trial in Arkansas, in early 2019, after disclosing his status after having sex with another young man. There is documented evidence that Johnson was in fact virally suppressed at the time of their sexual encounter, and the other person in question told TheBody that he tested positive just weeks later and was concurrently given an AIDS diagnosis, which suggests he may have also been HIV positive at the time he had sex with Johnson, but did not know. The accuser also suggests that when he called the police, he didn't realize they would charge Johnson with a felony and that it would mean Johnson would be sent to prison.
I am a black gay man who turned 44 this year. I straddle the generation of men who literally lost dozens if not hundreds of friends and lovers, and those who are now coming of age at a time when we have great treatments that will suppress the virus to make condomless sex of no risk of HIV transmission. We also have PrEP -- an option other than condoms to prevent HIV for those who are HIV negative. I'm on PrEP and made the choice to use PrEP several years ago so that I would take my own HIV prevention into my own hands, and not leave it to guess whether someone is HIV positive or negative. And I also am open to dating or having sex with men who are HIV positive (and already have), but I don't need someone to disclose their status in order for me to make decisions about my own body.
But I've been disheartened by the fact that we have such fear and mistrust of one another that people think calling the police on someone for their health status is something that will keep us safe. Police and prisons do not bring about safety. Access to quality health care that is affordable is safety. Housing, substance abuse treatment, and harm reduction is safety. And having the love and support of other men -- as friends, as lovers, as a community -- is what will make us safe and heal us all of the specter and the stigma of HIV, whether HIV positive or negative.