How HIV Stigma Compounded the Trauma of a Violent Anti-Gay Attack
Read Part I of Todd Heywood's account here.
After I was attacked in my apartment by two men who targeted me for being gay and HIV positive, my face was swollen like a chipmunk during an autumn nut collection frenzy, and I had bloody wounds on the side of my face. To this day, my thumbs retain areas of numbness from radial nerve damage caused by the handcuffs they used to restrain me. My laptops, digital cameras, cash, digital recorder, television, cellphone and medications, including my HIV meds, were gone.
Also missing was one of my two beloved dogs -- both which are certified as emotional assistance companions for my anxiety. He would not return to me until 36 hours after the attack. We were reunited through the power of Facebook and a compassionate woman who picked him up a mile and half away from my home. She bathed him and fed him. He was exhausted when he came home and slept for nearly 24 hours, unwilling to be more than a foot away from me the whole time.
But I was alive. I was the victim of an anti-gay hate crime known as a pick-up crime. Two men had come to my home ostensibly for sex; instead, they handcuffed me, beat me and stole my electronics and medications.
I was also a statistic. I was now one of the 1,253 anti-gay and anti-HIV hate and bias crimes reported in 12 states in 2015. While on a gut level I knew there was no way I was the first victim of this duo, it was not until much later that I discovered I was one of their many victims.
On November 30, seven days after their attack on me, the men told investigators that they deliberately targeted the "fucking faggots on Craigs List," because they were "sick" and "would not report it to the police." After the two men were sentenced to 17 to 55 years in prison for their crime spree, I learned that my HIV medications were also deliberately taken.
"[Suspect] said he knew subject had AIDS and he didn't want the subject to live because he tried to touch him," Lansing Police Department detective Joel Johnson wrote in the summation of his interview with the suspect.
While my case and that of another victim who was bound and beaten and had a knife put to his throat wound their way through the slow gears of justice, I could not speak publicly or write about what happened in any detail. As a reporter, I am used examining police reports and video confessions to understand what happened. As a victim, doing so could have tainted my testimony and complicated the criminal proceedings. I had to remain silent and in the dark.
Now, I am required to do neither. So I am telling this story because it involves state laws, policies and political stances that feed anti-gay violence, fuel anti-HIV stigma and create risks for both populations.
It's the Law!
In 1988, the Michigan legislature passed the AIDS -- Sexual Penetration With Uninformed Partner Law. The law makes it a four-year felony to engage in any sexual penetration "however slight" -- including with sex toys -- without disclosing an HIV-positive status.
The courts in Michigan have interpreted that disclosure provision so broadly that a woman in Cass County was sent to prison for placing her labia on the nose of an undercover informant at an adult club. The court determined that because she was HIV positive and did not disclose her status, she violated the law during an artistic performance. According to several Michigan attorneys, the courts have also narrowed the evidence admissible for proving there was disclosure.
Disclose in just a profile? Not enough. Disclose in a personal ad? Not enough. The courts want time stamped and dated communications to prove prior disclosure. That leaves me -- and thousands of people living with HIV in the state -- with two real choices for establishing a chain of disclosure evidence that can't be challenged in court.
We can meet the person someplace and video the disclosure. That, however, is not a safe idea. We know that people can have violent, deadly reactions to HIV status disclosure. So meeting a stranger, even in a public place, and saying, "Hey, I am going to turn on this video camera on my cell phone and record this conversation we're about to have, mmmk?" is off the table. The incredible women at the Positive Women's Network - USA can share with you horror story after horror story of violence perpetrated against women who disclosed their status.
That leaves me with creating email strings to prove disclosure prior to sexual penetration. In Michigan, it doesn't matter that I have no intention to transmit my infection. It doesn't matter that I am virally suppressed and exceedingly unlikely to transmit my virus. It doesn't matter whether I use condoms. None of that matters: If I do not disclose my HIV positive status, then I have committed a felony.
Did You Disclose?
Two days after my attack, I met Detective Johnson from the LPD for a victim interview and to review a photo line-up to see whether I could identify my perpetrators. As we talked, and I discussed having had my medications stolen, he stopped me.
"Did they know?" he asked.
As someone who has reported on HIV criminalization, I was aware that this was not, in any way, shape or form an innocent or innocuous question. The detective was attempting to determine whether I, the victim of a brutal attack, had committed a crime. I had disclosed, of course. I told him that. Had I not done so, it's possible that I myself could have faced prosecution. That disclosure could have cut the other way, as well. The defense could have made my HIV the justification for the attack.
We've seen that play out before, too. Just look at the case of Cicely Bolden, a Texas woman stabbed to death by Larry Dunn in 2012. He justified stabbing her in the throat twice and leaving her half naked body on the floor of her bedroom for her young children to find because she was HIV positive. In Dunn's mind, "She killed me. So I killed her."
That's how HIV stigma works in America.
Stigma at Court
I arrived at Ingham County Circuit Court early on June 22 for my two attackers' sentencing hearing. As I sat in the hallway, alone, I overheard one of the defense attorneys layout his strategy to demonize us, the victims: "You know, like child molesters," he said.
His plan was to present the men, not as anti-gay predators motivated by hate, but as men who had beaten and robbed us simply because a convenient opportunity had presented itself. That flew in the face of both men's confessions.
The judge rejected the defense arguments and accepted the sentencing report. The other victim who had come forward and filed a report submitted a written impact statement. I made the choice to present my impact statement in court, verbally, so the judge could see me.
As I laid out the story of the stolen medications, she stopped me after I mentioned HIV.
"Do I need to have the defendants tested?" she asked me. "I am sending them to prison, do they need to be tested?"
For a moment I was dumbfounded. These two men had handcuffed me, beat me, robbed me and left me helpless with my hands behind my back, and I was being asked whether I had posed a risk to them? I was, for that moment, a viral vector, not a human being, not a victim of a heinous crime.
"No," I replied. "There was no sex, your honor."
I was allowed to complete my statement generally uninterrupted.
A Long Judicial History of HIV Stigma
Trevor Hoppe, a professor of sociology at the University of Albany, SUNY, did his Ph.D. dissertation on HIV criminalization in Michigan. He released a study published in the journal Social Science and Medicine in 2014, which analyzed how HIV was treated by Michigan courts during HIV nondisclosure prosecutions. He accomplished this by reviewing trial transcripts and media reports from Michigan cases he was able to locate.
His findings are more than disappointing: It was routine for the courts to minimize the science related to transmission and to refer to HIV as a death sentence.
"In only four of the 58 cases did the complainant(s) allege to have contracted HIV from the defendant. Yet, in order to frame nondisclosure as a moral, criminal problem, prosecutors and judges continue to deploy analogies to murder and death sentences throughout the study period," he wrote in that 2014 study. "If the cases had proceeded on medical, instead of moral, grounds, it would have been much more difficult to establish harm or criminal negligence."
Culpability for the State
As I've shown, Michigan's policies and laws are partially culpable in this case. The insane law forced me to disclose my status before even meeting those men. That made me extra vulnerable to the ensuing violence.
Some years ago, the state health department investigated whether to change Michigan's law. But it stopped that investigation three drafts into a final report that would have recommended amending the law to require proof of intent to transmit and actual transmission. Officials still have not explained on the record why they abandoned that project and its recommendations.
But openly gay State Rep. Jon Hoadley (D-Kalamazoo) is working to introduce legislation as soon as July that would eliminate Michigan's felony law. In its place, Hoadley's legislation would create two separate misdemeanors. The high misdemeanor would subject those convicted of violating it to up to a year in jail. The low misdemeanor would subject those convicted of violating it to up to 93 days in jail. Both new laws would require prosecutors prove there was both intent to transmit and activity verified to transmit HIV. The high misdemeanor would be used for those who intended to and actually did transmit the virus. The low misdemeanor would be used for those who intended to transmit the virus, but don't.
Last weekend Hoadley told me via phone that the crimes perpetrated against me are just the latest example of how Michigan's laws are harming attempts to end the epidemic and endangering people living with HIV.