How Should People With HIV Protect Themselves From Criminalization?

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HIV criminalization is very real in many U.S. states and countries around the world. The Protection Center at Sero Project provides practical information about protecting yourself from HIV criminalization. But how much should people with HIV be concerned about their personal actions and criminalization risks in their daily lives? spoke to leaders at the 2016 HIV Is Not A Crime Training Academy to gain their perspectives.

Denise Smith

Activist, motivational speaker, consultant, Columbia, S.C.

First of all, know your state laws concerning HIV and AIDS. And if you see something on the book that you know is not right, get with your local agencies or anyone who's fighting to change them so they are more suitable, not just for you but for anybody who's living with HIV and AIDS.

Nestor Rogel

Administrative clerk, Hyde Park Library, Los Angeles Public Library

I like to take my partner, whatever woman I'm dating, to my doctor to have proof -- as far as the cameras at the hospital and a document of proof from my own physician -- and to talk to the girl. So if she has any questions the doctor can tell her, "OK, Nestor Rogel's positive. He's undetectable. This is what that means." And if she has any questions, she has a medical expert right there in the room who can answer all the questions for her.

This way there's no confusion about my status, about who I am, what I am. If there are any legal cases that come up, or she tries to say I didn't tell her, I have all the proof and evidence I need -- in addition to having a tattoo saying "HIV Positive" on my left arm in big, bold letters. That makes it so no judge can really say, "Oh, you didn't tell her." Like, how could I not? It's kind of everywhere -- as well as my Facebook post.

Tammy Garrett

Colorado Mod Squad

My ideal of how they can protect themselves is to get with organizations that support people living with HIV or AIDS; get into support groups. Learn about your laws in your state. Find out about who are your strong advocacy groups, and just get involved that way.

To protect myself is a normal thing. If I am out there, I'm going to be very watchful for who I engage with, have the disclosure conversation.

Just be truly, truly informed with all of your rights. You have to know your rights. With a person living with HIV or AIDS, you have to know your rights.

Dorian-Gray Alexander

Radio host, "Proof Positive,", New Orleans, La.

As a person living with HIV, there are so many things to deal with. And so to be burdened with trying to create ways to avoid being charged with a crime and prosecuted; there's probably not a fool-proof way to prevent yourself from being charged. Each state has its own law. And some of those laws, of course, are very archaic and also include things that are not known to transmit HIV.

It's hard to protect yourself if you are accused by a person of having spit at them -- which, of course, we all know that there's been no documented cases of HIV transmission from sweating, spitting, biting. The science is clear, and we know how HIV is transmitted.

In terms of personal, intimate sexual relations, unless you have hardened proof, such as you get audio or else video of yourself disclosing your status, and that person saying, "OK, now I know you have HIV, and it's OK if we have sex," there isn't a hard proof way to prevent yourself from being a victim of these charges.

Stephan Idris Mambazo

Rural Treatment Coordinator, Aletheia House, A Special Kind of Caring, Ala.

People with HIV have a responsibility to do what it takes to stay healthy. They have a responsibility to those who died before them so that they can have a better life today. They need to advocate for themselves. They need to get involved with the political process because, in reality, as we used to say it when I was in ACT UP Philadelphia years ago: Silence = Death. And death is not just a physical death today; it's a death to go to prison.

Patricia Ponce

Professor/investigator, Grupo Multisectorial en VIH/SIDA del Estado de Veracruz, Mexico

People who are HIV positive should know what the law says about the condition. And know your rights -- not only about HIV/AIDS, but your human rights.

It's important for people who are HIV positive to be proactive and stay away from isolation. Engage with people who are doing activist work, cultural work. Because the moment that you have an issue with this, you will require a complete community behind you, because of the level of injustice.

When you need somebody -- an advocate, an attorney or anything that you may need to deal with this issue -- you will have it. You will not just be in the closet, coming from this huge obscurity into this very shiny thing, life, with something so difficult such as being criminalized for your status.

(Translated from Spanish by Marco Castro Bojorquez.)

Liz Guerra

Delegacion Mexico, Jalisco, Guadelajara, Mexico

I'm a responsible human being who takes care of herself. HIV is nothing but a medical condition that I have to deal with. I manage by visiting my doctor regularly and being healthy from top to bottom. I don't need to be living in the shadows.

(Translated from Spanish by Marco Castro Bojorquez.)

Lynn Opdycke

Board member, Idaho Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS

Unfortunately, especially in Idaho, you almost have to have a signed affidavit saying that you've told somebody that you are HIV positive before you have a sexual relationship with them. Otherwise, you put yourself at risk of being charged with a crime.

So I do tell people that it's very important that, in some way or another, they verify that they have disclosed to that person. That doesn't actually mean that they're not going to get charged with something even when they do that. I have a friend who was put through the wringer, and even his partner said, "He told me!" But because they were in a relationship, they charged him with intentionally trying to transfer HIV.

The law, the way it's written, makes it against the law, really, to have sex with your partner if you are HIV positive. That's what we're trying to change. We're trying to at least modernize it so that it's not archaic. Usually what I tell people is, "You need to make sure that you are following the law, even though the law is not OK."

Nicole Harrison

Colorado Mod Squad

The unfortunate part is that we would hope that [people with HIV] would think about the criminalization process just as much as anyone would think about being criminalized, period: Hopefully, you shouldn't think about that at all. The unfortunate part is that there are specific demographics of people who have to think about things a little bit differently than anyone else. The hard part is that we're always having to be mindful about lots of things. At the same time, what we're trying to do is to create a collective of information, whether it be a pamphlet or just something, short snippets of things -- maybe snippets of YouTube videos or anything that just gives a little brief educational tool to allow people to understand the depths of what criminalization can actually do to an individual, specifically an individual living with HIV or AIDS.

Meta Smith-Davis

Advocate and co-chair of PWN-Louisiana

Now, that's a tricky one. I think that folks living with HIV don't think about it enough. I think it's critical that it be something that you're thinking about, that you are at least conscious of your actions. Because some of your actions could get you a prison term. So I think it needs to be something that you are actively thinking about, especially if you're single and dating.

In the state where I come from it's horrible. Short of getting a notarized document saying, "I disclose to you," there ain't a whole lot.

But I always encourage people. I don't think there's anything wrong with, if I had to, protecting myself. I would go to any length. And if part of that length meant getting a notarized document with that person beside me, I would do that to protect myself. It's just a piece of paper. But I would do everything that I could in my power to protect myself.