These past four years have been challenging for many of us. America under President Trump was a nightmare for people living with HIV (PLWH) and their allies. If we’re being honest, though, the problem started way before Trump seized power—and without strong activism, it will continue even now that he’s gone.
“We got comfortable during Obama’s second term,” shares community organizer Kamaria Laffrey. “We had time to move forward and make progressive change; instead, we played defense for four years.”
Laffrey is the personification of Black Girl Magic: She is the southern engagement community coordinator for the Sero Project, an organization that puts people living with HIV in a position of leadership in order to address HIV stigma, the criminalization of PLWH, mass incarceration, racism, and social injustice. Laffrey has been doing this work for years now; she helps mobilize people living with HIV to lobby lawmakers and empower themselves.
Although Laffrey is hopeful for the Joe Biden and Kamala Harris administration, she is mindful of the past—as are many prison abolitionists who have worked to address the criminal justice system.
Biden, and especially Kamala Harris, made history in this election. Harris is the first female, first Black, first South Asian to win the vote for vice president. While these are victories to celebrate, her track record hasn’t always been the most favorable.
California witnessed Harris’ ascendance as a prosecutor in the Bay Area. She was notorious in supporting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and in approaching the criminal justice system with an iron fist. Because of this, many Black families went to prison for petty crimes and thousands of families were separated at the border.
Meanwhile, Biden laid the foundation for mass incarceration that devastated Black communities throughout the nation by drafting the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994. This legislation is responsible for the unforgiving “three-strikes” rule that has disproportionately harmed Black and Latinx people.
Alongside this devastating track record with communities of color, HIV criminalization is still common in the U.S.: As of right now, over 30 U.S. states have laws on the books that allow for the prosecution of people living with HIV for non-disclosure crimes. Some states even treat transmission of HIV as a felony in some cases. To add insult to injury, several states can also force people convicted under these laws to register as sex offenders, which ruins reputations and forces folks to live a life as second-class citizens.
So, given the complicated criminal-justice histories of Biden and Harris, how can community organizers be sure that the new presidential administration will support people living with HIV even as states continue to lock them up?
“As far as moving forward and holding Biden accountable, Sero Project is working as a collective with Health Not Prisons to change future laws—and not just sprinkling glitter on policies, but actually centering the people who are impacted by these laws that come for people based on the color of their skin and their economic backgrounds,” shares Laffrey. “If we create policies that center those voices most marginalized, we will have more effective measurements.”
The Sero Project has a plethora of resources to help people get involved in the movement to decriminalize HIV. For example, their website tracks which states have passed new HIV criminalization bills since 2011, as well as which states have bills moving through the legislative process.
Importantly, the Sero Project isn’t an organization fighting against criminalization only from the outside: Kerry Thomas, a board member with the Sero Project since 2013, is serving two consecutive 15-year sentences at the Idaho Correctional Center for having consensual sex with someone while living with HIV, despite using condoms and having an undetectable viral load—in other words, his sexual partner didn’t contract HIV. Regardless, the state of Idaho criminalized him for his status.
From prison, Thomas has become an HIV educator and advocate, working to change policy in part by helping people understand that HIV criminalization affects everyone. “There’s a quote from Kerry that I use all the time: ‘You care about HIV, you just don’t know it yet,’” says Laffrey. “That quote inspired me to get on board with the work Sero Project implements.”