Leading up to the election on Nov. 3, Nina Martinez was working at the ground level to ensure that people living with HIV in Georgia were registered to vote and enrolled in marketplace health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
This focus on health is part of a personal battle that she’s been actively fighting for the past five years, though it has its roots in a terrible mistake that occurred in 1983. Thirty-seven years ago, before tests for HIV existed, Martinez was given a transfusion of blood that was infected with HIV. She was six weeks old.
Living through the height of the AIDS epidemic as a child—while facing stigma and the fear that she might not survive past her 20s—inspired Martinez to work to change Georgia’s draconian HIV disclosure laws. Like 20 other states, Georgia penalizes people living with HIV if they fail to disclose their status before engaging in sex. In the peach state, failure to disclose is considered a felony punishable with up to 10 years in prison, even if you are undetectable, which means that you are virally suppressed and unable to transmit the virus sexually.
Because of Martinez and the work of her fellow activists at Georgia HIV Justice Coalition, the state’s House of Representatives approved legislation that would have decriminalized the failure to disclose one’s HIV status unless a person intends to infect another person through sexual activity that the most up-to-date science indicates “has a significant risk of transmission.”
Fresh from her relief over news of the presidential election and Georgia turning blue, Martinez spoke with TheBody about her experiences, registering people to vote, and why she can’t stand to see clueless out-of-state elites meddling in Georgia’s politics. Rather than tell people where they should donate their money, Martinez wants them to be aware of the options that they have available and to look into who best represents their interests. It’s the same approach she takes to advocating for voting; don’t just vote your conscience, vote for who supports your community. That’s why she continues to advocate for people living with HIV, especially in Georgia. It’s an important reminder to keep in mind along with the need to turn out to vote for the runoff election on Jan. 5 for two Georgia U.S. senator seats.
Juan Michael Porter II: How did you become aware of the need to get people with HIV registered to vote?
Nina Martinez: As somebody who did not acquire HIV sexually, I have a different view of things. Something I think that people seem to forget: You don’t stop being a person just because you have HIV. I’ve lived a whole life doing the things that people do, but that doesn’t make me immune from people projecting that I have malicious intent by default. Just like gay or other marginalized people, people living with HIV can be victims of crime.
Porter II: Have you?
Martinez: I experienced sexual assault about 12 years ago; now, that was a question of consent. But because of Georgia’s HIV nondisclosure law, I was afraid that if I brought charges, my perpetrator might convince a jury that the attack was actually a consensual sexual activity and accuse me of not disclosing my HIV status.
Porter II: Which would have been the furthest thing from your mind at that point.
Martinez: Exactly. I was not in a position to disclose my HIV status. And even if I had been, Georgia is a fan of its second amendment.
Porter II: Kind of like “Stand Your Ground” laws?
Martinez: Yep. And very similarly to “gay panic,” where gay people have experienced violence, there are many noted examples of people living with HIV who disclosed their HIV status and ended up gravely harmed or killed.
Porter II: I can’t even imagine being in this position.
Martinez: Actually, my story with HIV criminalization isn’t unique—it’s just one that hadn’t been told until I started to speak about my experience.
In 2015 I started working with a local group to push for legislative reform. While testifying at the statehouse for a resolution that would create a study committee to investigate barriers of access to adequate health care, it became clear that legislators don’t know too much about the issue.
When I testified, I didn’t talk about my sexual assault. I talked about how it’s a violation of these constitutional things—but a conservative Republican committee member asked me, “How has HIV criminalization limited your personal liberty?” That’s when I started to share my story as a survivor of sexual assault. To me, it was unfair that my HIV status could be construed as a proxy of criminal intent as somebody who is a victim of a crime.
Porter II: What’s most disgusting about it is that you shouldn’t have had to use your personal trauma to explain why something that limits your ability to thrive should be struck down. What if you hadn’t felt comfortable telling a story? Or what if that wasn’t your story; would that delegitimize the fact that HIV criminalization is a problem?
It makes me think of earlier this summer when a NYC police officer accused a homeless man, who is living with HIV, of weaponizing his virus by spitting on him. Meanwhile, people do not get HIV through spit.
Martinez: Hashtag: #SpitDoesNotTransmit! In the state of Georgia, if somebody not living with HIV spits on a police officer, the penalty is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 12 months in jail. But if you’re someone living with HIV and you spit on a police officer, it’s an automatic felony with a penalty of five to 20 years in sentence duration. All things being equal, this is discrimination by the criminal justice system based on a disability.
But going back to disclosure, consensual sex is not a crime. And just because the other person is not living with HIV, that doesn’t preclude them from making decisions about what risks they are willing to take or taking responsibility for their choices. Failure to disclose might be morally wrong, but looking at it from this angle it makes the person living with HIV do all the work. And when nondisclosure charges are brought, if you’re unable to come up with proof of disclosure, that is assumed to be proof of nondisclosure.
Porter II: All things being unequal, looking at sexual assault, it’s the exact opposite with the person bringing charges having to prove that the encounter was nonconsensual. This an obnoxious case of clear double standards.
Martinez: Some people will go through mental gymnastics in order to “other” people living with HIV.
Porter II: You’re doing a lot of work to combat that. Talk to me about registering people living with HIV to vote.
Martinez: It’s part of changing the system, because we have a legislature that is not open to changing the laws. I focused on individuals living with HIV because they happen to be the most disenfranchised and because certain activities that transmit HIV put people at risk of interfacing with the criminal justice system. I’m thinking of drug dependencies or sex workers.
When I went to clinics to register voters who had been convicted of felonies, I found that they thought that they were ineligible to vote, which isn’t true. In Georgia, once you have repaid your debt to society, you have to re-register to vote, and a lot of people don’t know that they’re able to do that. Again, it’s important because our votes matter.
We’ve experienced major suppression, but individual, everyday Georgians are doing what they can to make change. We really do want the same things as people in more progressive cities.
Porter II: And all of that starts at the grassroots level. I hear a lot of generalizations being made about Georgians, like, “What’s wrong with them?” when the same people making those comments have problems in their own houses. I’m thinking about the University of Michigan’s [president] making up lies about HIV transmission to excuse his decision to avoid providing testing for COVID-19 to his students.
Martinez: Education, especially higher education, is not an immunization against bigotry. I’ve lived in Northern places—and now I feel like a cranky old Southerner—but I’m proud to be from the South. Change hasn’t been easy. But it’s not because life is hard here. It’s because of structural barriers to success. The big difference is that people don’t appreciate all the work that has to happen in order to get to places that are not automatically funded.
No one funds the necessary groundwork in the South. They want to send people from New York or California, but they don’t want to invest in the everyday Georgians who have been doing the work for the last 10 years. Georgia does not need the helicopter-saviors in the form of Andrew Yang.
Stacey Abrams has done her best to try to reiterate this: Everyday Georgians are doing the work that has brought this change. But I think certain people, particularly white people, are always looking to anoint a savior. Abrams is a great organizer—no one can deny that—but she can’t do everything.
No single person can do this work by themselves. But at the same time, never underestimate that one person can make a concrete difference that is contributing to overall change. Right now, we have plenty of voter-outreach volunteers who have struggled to pay their bills because they’re doing this work that is so important but that nobody wants to fund. They want to send people from other places here because they think that we’re not doing the work.
Porter II: Instead of importing people who don’t know what the issues are or whom to talk to to get things done, if those funders were to invest in the movements that are already in place, it could be world-changing. Can you suggest a few places to donate to for those who want to invest in making change, but don’t know where to send their support?
Martinez: Anjali Enjeti, co-founder of They See Blue Georgia, created a spreadsheet of Black, Indigenous, and people of color–led organizations in Georgia that she tweeted. I hope it helps.
Early voting for Georgia’s runoff election begins on Dec. 14. For information about requesting an absentee ballot, identification requirements, or how to register to vote, visit All in to Vote or Georgia.gov.