Stigma Fuels Small Town HIV Hysteria in Michigan
Sgt. Frank Claeys of the Gaylord Police Department says he just wanted to do the right thing for the community.
"We didn't want to sit on information that could have prevented someone from having an issue," Claeys explained to TheBody.com.
The issue he and his department were hoping to prevent? Potential HIV infections.
During an investigation into alleged prostitution rings operating in the small resort town in northern Michigan, Claeys alleges his department determined one of the women involved in the rings was HIV positive based on sources with "credible information."
So, in the final days of 2014, he reached out to the local newspaper to inform the community of 3,500 that there might be a public health concern.
"It was not our intention for it to go to the local television networks," he says. "It was not our intention to sensationalize it."
But as too often happens when HIV collides with the taboos of commercial sex work -- and sex in general for that matter, particularly in small town America -- it blew up.
And that has national HIV activists concerned.
"This runs counter to all the science we have," Naina Khanna, executive director of the Positive Women's Network USA, told TheBody.com. "This is not a public health threat. There is no reason to create mass public hysteria around a situation like this."
The next day, a public health official added fuel to the smoldering fire of what Khanna called "that monstrous stigma."
"Anyone having unprotected sex can spread HIV. That should be scary to people. It's that easy to spread," said Dan Reynolds, communications director for the rural Public Health Department of Northwest Michigan, to the local Fox News affiliate.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the potential of transmitting HIV infection from a woman to a man during vaginal sex is only four infections per 10,000 cases. But in a conversation with TheBody.com, Reynolds defended his statement.
His reasoning was this: If people have condomless sex, they might have that sex with a person living with HIV. If they have sex with a person living with HIV, there is a chance they might get infected. Therefore, Reynolds reasoned, HIV is as easy to spread as having condomless sex.
That's faulty logic. It's like saying because you step out of your front door you might end up on a busy bus route. And because there are buses, you might get hit by a bus. So, getting hit by a bus is as easy as stepping out your front door.
"Anyone with a title and a microphone can spread misinformation that inflicts harm upon and stigmatizes people with HIV and hurts public health," Sean Strub, executive director of Sero Project, said in an email in reaction to Reynolds' explanation. "That should be scary to people. It's that easy to spread."
Claeys was taken aback by Reynolds' comments.
"I can't believe the guy from the health department was so ..." he trails off. "Yeah." He pauses. "And I'm sure maybe he was overstating things for the greater good."
Claeys says he was unaware of public health laws that would have allowed the situation to be investigated quietly and handled through a civil procedure called "Health Threat to Others." As a result, he didn't reach out to the health department in advance of his press release.
"First of all, there's no way of knowing from the information that's been provided -- this is all an alleged situation -- and there are numerous cases of women experiencing violence and even death after disclosure, both voluntary and involuntary, of HIV status," Khanna says, in explaining her concerns about the public release. "The suspicion of HIV status itself, in some instances, has been enough to trigger violence. So this kind of big accusation -- that there's this hyperbolic ring of escorts operating -- really has a potential to put a whole group of women at risk for violence. And certainly for stigma as well."
Indeed, violence against women with HIV is not rare.
In 2012, in Dallas, Texas, Larry Dunn got up from the bed of his female sex partner, Cicely Bolden, walked into the kitchen, grabbed a knife and went back to bed. He then stabbed her twice in the neck, killing her. His justification for the murder? He was "enraged" because she was HIV positive and he had had condomless sex with her several times, he told police detectives in a videotaped confession.
And in Wisconsin, a month after the Gaylord announcement, Clayton Courtney faces murder charges in the death of Brittany Cross. He claims he killed her because she disclosed her HIV status to him. Even though Cross' medical records did not show any indication that she was HIV positive, Courtney's defense team persuaded a judge to order an HIV blood test on the remaining sample of her blood. The defense is hoping to get the first degree murder charge dropped to second degree murder using an HIV panic defense.
Khanna points out that, particularly since the identity of the woman in Gaylord is unknown, the whole community of women who are engaged in commercial sex work in the area is at risk.
Claeys downplays that concern.
"There's no way anyone could reasonably know who she was," he says. "Of course, everybody's health and well-being is our concern, but we don't think we endangered or jeopardized anyone."
For Khanna, there is another troubling issue playing out under all this "hysteria." She points to Claeys' statement to the local Fox News affiliate.
"Our biggest concern is the spread of HIV or AIDS to unwilling unknowing people who had nothing to do with this incident. It obviously can travel beyond the people who knowingly participated in any kind of illegal acts," he said.
That's creating "innocent victims," Khanna says, a long-standing obstacle in addressing HIV in the U.S. and abroad. It's a kind of sexism as well, implying that women have to be protected from their male partners, she says.
"Anytime there is someone who is innocent, there is necessarily somebody guilty or deserving," she adds. "The reason that people believe that there are some people who deserve HIV is because people are judging and moralizing behaviors or factors that put people at risk for being HIV positive. HIV stigma is more complicated than just HIV. HIV stigma is also homophobia. It is also racism. It is also prejudice against and caused by dislike of sex workers and drug users."
Ultimately, creating a safer and healthier community, she says, is about creating environments where the risk of stigma, rejection and violence is minimized or eradicated.
"The best thing for people who are not living with HIV is for there to be an environment created where it is safe for people living with HIV to disclose their status if they choose to, to be engaged in care, and for people who think they may be at risk for HIV to go and get tested and know their status," Khanna says. "That's when we create an environment that is really truly safer and more prevention oriented for everybody."