Why It’s Time to Dismantle HIV Criminalization Laws
Earlier in May, a Missouri jury found Michael Johnson, a 23-year-old former college wrestler, guilty of “recklessly infecting” a sexual partner with HIV and attempting to expose several others to the disease—without honestly disclosing his infection. During the trial, Johnson testified that shortly after he was diagnosed with HIV, he felt “scared and confused,” and said, “I didn’t have any knowledge of HIV; I knew it was an STD, that’s all.” At least three of the men Johnson had sex with testified that he told them he didn’t have HIV. In closing arguments, the prosecutor said, “What we have here is a perfect storm of malice.” Now, Johnson sits in a detention center in St. Charles County, Missouri, awaiting a court hearing, during which he may be sentenced to several decades in prison.
Johnson’s conviction taps into a big, complicated issue: America’s HIV criminalization laws, which arguably disproportionately impact black people—particularly black gay men. I first heard about Johnson’s case last summer, when it made international news. The headlines were jarring: “How College Wrestling Star ‘Tiger Mandingo’ Became an HIV Scapegoat,” read one BuzzFeed headline. Another headline called Johnson the “worst human being ever.” The story continues to stir considerable conversations about black gay men like me. Much of the coverage of Johnson’s case has been a painful reminder of how black men are viewed in American society. Since slavery, we’ve been cast as aggressive, hypersexual beasts. In popular culture—and gay culture—so much thinking about black men centers on our “package”—our penises.
The coverage of the case is also driving fear of black men, particularly black gay men. Here are the facts: There are more than 1.2 million HIV-positive people living in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Men who have sex with men account for 63 percent of all new HIV infections in the U.S. Black people account for nearly half of all new HIV infections, even though we make up roughly 12 percent of the population. Sadly, it’s estimated that by the end of this decade, more than half of black gay men will be HIV-positive, mainly because stigma tied to homosexuality, race, and gender causes people not to talk openly about our sexual experiences. Studies have shown that black gay men aren’t any more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior than our white peers. However, since black gay men tend to sleep with other black gay men, the network of sexual partners creates a higher risk of contracting HIV. Yes, there’s a crisis among black gay men. But that doesn’t mean we should be feared or demonized.
During the early years of the HIV epidemic, there was much panic, mostly rooted in a deep misunderstanding about the disease. This is the environment I grew up in. My first introduction to HIV came in the 1990s, when my mother’s best friend contracted the disease during a blood transfusion and ultimately died. I grew up thinking HIV/AIDS could kill you. Around the same time, states began passing laws that essentially made it a crime to expose a sexual partner to HIV. Now, there are at least 67 HIV criminalization laws in 33 states. In 24 states, HIV-positive people are required to tell their sexual partners about their status. HIV criminalization laws are behind the science and fuel even more disparities for the many black gay men who are prone to receiving an HIV-positive diagnosis. These laws send the message that people living with HIV are the only ones responsible for reducing transmission and protecting two consenting adults. The Obama administration has recommended that states review HIV criminalization laws to reflect current understanding of how the disease is transmitted and treated. This will help remove much of the stigma about the disease. This will also help people understand that there are many HIV prevention and treatment options.
We must use this moment to drive meaningful conversations about the impact of HIV criminalization laws. Some of these conversations are already being driven by people like Devin Barrington-Ward, vice chair of CNAC: Advocates for Black Gay Men. Barrington-Ward is contacting legislators and developing an online campaign to raise awareness about HIV criminalization laws. “The lives of black gay men are precious and valuable,” he told me. “We can no longer sit by idly while these HIV criminalization laws feed our brothers to the criminal justice system.” Another group, the Counter Narrative Project, is hosting webinars to educate black gay men about HIV criminalization laws. It is also developing campaigns to push public health organizations to take on this issue.
It’s time to dismantle HIV criminalization laws. If we don’t act soon, more Americans—particularly people of color and especially black gay men—will not get tested, partly out of fear that someone may say they “knowingly” exposed the person to HIV. This will lead to more people being infected, and we can’t afford that. There’s too much at stake.