State by State, People With HIV and Allies Fight to Change Laws
Advocates and activists across the country have begun mounting a robust movement to replace outdated and often scientifically unsound laws related to HIV that have led to the prosecution and imprisonment of people living with HIV (PLHIV).
According to Sean Strub, executive director of Sero Project, a national organization of PLHIV and their allies working to modernize HIV-related laws in the U.S., there are at least 15 states with working groups trying to change local laws, including Florida, Michigan, Missouri, Colorado, Mississippi and Ohio. A complete list can be found at the end of this report.
Strub said it is difficult at times to measure how many states are actively working on such legislative solutions.
"Sometimes it isn't easy to tell where a state is at; we find that it can take a year or two of community education, meeting with service providers, PLHIV and others before something starts to coalesce," he wrote in an email to TheBody.com.
For example, in Indiana a coalition began four months ago, according to Carrie Foote, one of those helping to organize that effort.
Meanwhile, in Michigan, on May 3 advocates and activists will host the first legislative lobby day on reforming that state's law. The lobby day will focus on garnering support and legislative co-sponsors for legislation to be introduced by State Rep. Jon Hoadley (D-Kalamazoo).
Michigan's current law makes it a felony for people who know they are infected with HIV to engage in sexual penetration "however slight" without first informing their partner that they have the virus. Sexual penetration is broadly defined and specifically criminalizes the use of sex toys without disclosure. The law has been used to prosecute a female stripper for placing her labia on the nose of an undercover informant who was in the strip club investigating allegations of prostitution and drug dealing. The law does not require intent to transmit or evidence that the action taken would likely transmit the virus.
Hoadley's legislation, which is being circulated in the state capital of Lansing, would downgrade Michigan's HIV criminalization law from a felony offense, creating two misdemeanor crimes to replace it. Both new crimes would require proof of intent to transmit the infection as well as proof that the behavior engaged in was a scientifically viable route of transmission. Hoadley said that persons proven to have intentionally infected someone would be subject to a misdemeanor charge and up to a year in jail, while those proven to have intended to transmit their virus -- but who did not do so -- would be subject to a 90-day misdemeanor charge.
"We are recognizing that there are some people who intend to transmit their infection, and we are providing a way to address that," Hoadley said.
Hoadley said he hopes that the May 3 lobby day will "carry this conversation" to Michigan lawmakers and help inform them about the harms people living with HIV face every day in the state because of the existing law.
The lobby day is being organized by the Michigan Coalition for HIV Health and Safety. Kelly Doyle is the organization's coordinator.
"My guess is that a lot of [lawmakers] may not know this law exists or how it impacts people living with HIV," she said. "It's going to be important to educate as many of them as possible."
The legislative lobby day comes shortly before a national conference organized by Sero Project and the Positive Women's Network of the USA. The HIV Is Not a Crime II Training Academy will happen May 17-20 in Huntsville, AL.
Tami Haught, organizing and training coordinator for Sero, said the conference is key to empowering people with HIV to take on stigmatizing laws.
"HIV Is Not a Crime II Training Academy is first and foremost a gathering of PLHIV for PLHIV," she wrote in an email. "We want our allies to participate and to learn from them and for them to learn from us. But the most important lesson to be learned is 'nothing about us without us': meaningful involvement of people living with HIV in all aspects of modernizing laws and advocacy."
Haught, who helped organize Iowa's successful modernization efforts two years ago, said activists will leave with "concrete tools," for working on "grassroots organizing, advocacy, coalition-building and campaign planning."
Doyle, the Michigan advocate, said the first HIV Is Not a Crime conference, held in 2014 in Grinnell, IA, had helped her immensely. She said it helped her learn how to have the "difficult" conversations about HIV criminalization that are often fueled by people's HIV stigma and poor media representations.
"Those are hard conversations to talk through sometimes," she said.
Here's a list of states with active grassroots movements to address HIV-specific laws and, where possible, who you can contact to get involved.