Laws in many states criminalize those with HIV/AIDS who fail to disclose their status to their partners.
This was the message of a prograFm by the U.S. Positive Women’s Network held recently at the William Way Community Center in Center City.
AIDS activists, lawyers and several organizations were united in their efforts to halt legal discrimination against those living with the disease.
“We have been planning this event since the HIV/AIDS conference in July, because this topic came up several times at the convention,” said Waheedah Shabazz, an HIV/AIDS activist.
Shabazz said the International AIDS Conference as historic in that it was the first time in 25 years that it has been held in the United States.
“It was a human rights victory just having the International AIDS Conference in the U.S., since the U.S. has had a ridiculous travel ban on the arrival of people with HIV on its borders,” she said.
Shabazz said it was President Barack Obama who overturned the travel restrictions, making it possible for the conference to be held in the States.
During the conference, the stigma facing people with AIDS was raised repeatedly. This was the motivation for the Nov. 19 HIV/AIDS Criminalization forums, according to Shabazz.
“The Center for HIV Law and Policy has gone around the country hosting state –by-state forums about the new wave of non-disclosure laws around HIV/AIDS,” said Shabazz who emphasized that such laws make it illegal in some circumstances to fail to disclose one’s HIV status to others.
“It’s a very discriminatory practice because it affects poor people and people of color [disproportionately],” she said. “There’s no one way to implement this law, so certain people are receiving excessive punishment because of them.”
Shabazz said those who have failed to disclose their HIV/AIDS status with sexual partners, even when using protection and/or were consensual, have been incarcerated, faced other punishment and have even been compelled to register under Megan’s Law as sex offenders.
This was the case for Robert Suttle, who attended the forum.
Suttle was convicted under Louisiana’s non-disclosure law and sentenced to six months in prison for failing to disclose his HIV-positive status to his lover.
“These laws do nothing to prevent HIV or transmission of the infection from one person to another, nor do they protect the community,” said Suttle, who says all such laws should be repealed.
Having served his sentence, Suttle is now required to register as a sex offender under Megan’s Law, and fights back by traveling the country to raise awareness about the non-disclosure laws he contends are unjust.
Asked if he felt those who test positive for HIV should be required by law to disclose their status to their intimate partners, Suttle said it is the responsibility of both parties to act responsibly to protect themselves. He also said the burden shouldn’t be placed solely on the shoulders of those infected with the virus.
“I feel that a person’s status is private, I don’t think it’s something that should be made public,” he said. “However, I think a person should always feel safe to disclose their status when it’s safe to do so.”
Ronda Goldfein, executive director of the Pennsylvania AIDS Law Project, also served as a panelist during the forum.
While Pennsylvania doesn’t have such laws, it does have sentence enhancement, possible harsher punishment for those who commit crimes knowing that they are HIV-positive, if the act was deemed to have made it more probable that others might be infected by it.
Biting or spitting on someone or sexual assault sentences could be enhanced if the person accused of committing such acts knowingly tested positive for HIV in the past.
“I spoke about the laws related to HIV in Pennsylvania,” Goldfein said. “The overall theme of the workshop was to inform Philadelphians of this disconcerting trend of criminalizing HIV.”