On Uplifting Voices, Social Justice and Listening to HIV Criminalization Accusers
The trial of Michael Johnson, who faces charges for HIV nondisclosure in his home state of Missouri, has begun, and tensions are high in the HIV community. Some people feel Johnson's case has gotten a disproportionately high amount of attention -- from a well-reported piece in BuzzFeed, to a commentary on that piece in Gawker -- while the payoff from that exposure seems to be very little. The "Justice for Michael" GoFundMe page raised only $1,270 from 20 donors after nine months of activity and has been taken down.
Johnson's case is complex. It involves issues of race, sexuality, gender, white supremacy, HIV criminalization, undereducation and poverty, just to name a few. It is a pill too big to be swallowed whole in one sitting. It requires time to unravel and make sense of. As Rev. Dr. King reminds us, the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice, which I believe people can see with time.
That word, justice, is hard to pin down. Any definition of justice that applies in our criminal justice system may be too paltry to encapsulate true justice for all those involved in this case.
This is a case of losers all around. A person's life is at stake. A person who is living with an illness that can turn deadly if it goes untreated faces time in one of the most traumatic environments in the world today -- the U.S. prison system. On the other side, the accusers, like many accusers in HIV criminalization cases, think they have been done wrong. One purports to have seroconverted from his encounter with Johnson. They think prosecuting and imprisoning people with HIV will prevent this from happening again, and thereby protect them and people like them from infection.
They are wrong.
It is crucial to our society as a whole that the voices of marginalized peoples be lifted up and embraced as a testimony to the many barriers in place toward living a fully realized human life. While I support the uplifting of voices, I do not support the raising of the voices of accusers in HIV criminalization cases. The uplifting of voices is meant to promote social justice, which is not always the aim of the U.S. criminal justice system.
People often believe that laws are neutral. But they are not. They require context. Laws are written by fallible humans to maintain "order." The question becomes: Order for whom? Order against what? Protection from whom?
When I took my very first "Sacred Texts" course at Fordham University, we were asked to read the Book of Leviticus in context. Leviticus is famous for its verses, which many Bible-thumpers use to fuel homophobia. It was written by a set of people at a time in Jewish history when the population was small, and thus fear and stigma were encoded into laws in order to increase the size of the population. The laws were meant to promote public health and population growth by legislating that men eat the right foods, not waste their semen in a man's butt or by masturbating, and not sleep with a woman when she is on her period. Much like the laws of today, Leviticus got public health wrong.
Reading Leviticus out of context might make you think that its laws are God's word and that they are good laws. But perhaps we are meant to learn from Leviticus how our fear of others and disease is a persistent human fear that infects us even today. HIV criminalization laws are a modern Leviticus and we should not accept these laws blindly without realizing they were written by people who fear that which they see as unclean and to prosecute those who are misunderstood. These laws cannot protect us from anything.
Because laws are usually written and passed by those in power, and those in power are there because of systems like white supremacy and anti-blackness, we must recognize that HIV criminalization laws are a direct reflection of those systems. Yes, it is important to hear everyone's side of the story -- our judicial system is rooted in this idea -- but, in this case, to say that Johnson should be held accountable for allegedly exposing his accusers to HIV will not benefit the accusers. Rather, it will perpetuate our country's misguided laws; highly flawed laws that tell us that people should face criminal charges for exposing people to or transmitting a virus.
Who exactly should be held accountable for the sexual transmission and acquisition of HIV? The person involved in the intimate act? What about the systems behind that act? In the U.S., we've created a system that does not make it easy for people living with HIV to be their healthiest selves. That is why only 30% of HIV-positive people have an undetectable viral load. Our care continuum sees the ultimate goal of someone's health as the inability to infect others.
Can't we expand the conversation beyond "he said, she said" or "he said, he said" to "we both said things, but we live in a fucked up world that deserves our attention"?
If Johnson is found guilty, he will go to prison. He will probably not get his meds on time. He may not get his meds at all. As other HIV-positive people who have faced criminalization charges have shared with me, getting meds in jail is an imperfect science. Johnson will become another black person whose life doesn't matter, another person stuck on the care continuum somewhere between diagnosed and virally suppressed. In which case, his viral load will remain high, his immune system will be less able to shake off ordinary viruses that babies can fight off, and he will remain infectious; his unsuppressed virus may pass onto others, as viruses tend to do. Even if he's released, he will face a hard time finding a job or shelter because of his criminal status. He will have a hard time remaining healthy and will remain infectious. If the accusers want to ask who should be held accountable for an infection, they have no one to look at but themselves.
To listen to the voices of the accusers in an HIV criminalization case without context is to lay another brick in HIV's Berlin Wall. I urge us to work to tear that wall down.
[Editor's note 5/15/15: This op-ed was written prior to the conviction and sentencing of Michael Johnson for HIV transmission and exposure on May 15, 2015.]