HIV is NOT a Crime

In less than one month, I will be attending the HIV is Not a Crime National Training Academy II and I cannot wait. I will be in a room with fellow HIV advocates, some of them that have been arrested and/or prosecuted for living with HIV, having to register as sex offenders and class D felons!

Why would I be excited about that? Well, let me walk you through a timeline of my knowledge of what I have learned is HIV criminalization.

Definition: HIV Criminalization is the inappropriate criminal prosecutions of people living with HIV for non-disclosure of their HIV status, potential or perceived HIV exposure or transmission.

As a member of Positive Women's Network - USA, I am on several listservs and one of them featured a thread from Tami Haught. She was requesting information from anyone living in Florida that she could sit and do a round table with to educate them on criminalization and ultimately form a task force that would begin working on repealing the outdated laws that are in existence in many states with HIV specific language based on stigma and not the science of transmission. Remembering I had met Tami at the previous Positive Women's Network Speak Up! Summit and hearing stories of how HIV disclosure laws were impacting people's lives, I knew I wanted to be involved. Wanting to help out in anyway I could, but not really having a lot of knowledge, I connected with Tami and she attended a support group I'm a part of where she did a brief but powerful presentation on the outdated laws, what has been done in other states to repeal them and what more needs to be done. I was hooked.

From there, I began to visit the website of the agency Tami was representing, The SERO Project. I thought back to the Cicely Bolden and Elisha Henson cases where their lives were taken because of their HIV disclosure (but no transmission of HIV). I wrote about them in relation to women living with HIV and exposure to Intimate Partner Violence (IPV). My heart began to break (again) and I felt incredibly hopeless.

I know nothing about law, policy, or even felt comfortable going to elected officials to talk to them. I was one of those people that felt they were untouchable. I think it has something to do with them always wearing suits. Can you wear yoga pants or jeans just once to a meeting? Please?

I was left with this, "Now, what" feeling after Tami left. I followed her posts, I followed SERO and I read as much as I could understand. Then I got an email from Tami asking if I was available to come up to Tallahassee. She was forming a band. No seriously, she had called together Florida advocates and allies to brainstorm on what could be done to repeal our laws. Evidently, Florida has had 153 people convicted (as of Nov. 2015) under these laws. One of the main principles that we are working on across the board outside of educating the community and leaders is to examine the previous cases and approach the repeals to modernize Florida statutes from a public health perspective, including using the National HIV/AIDS Strategy as support.

So, the meeting has been a kick start to work behind the scenes quietly, making moves in a direction that will ultimately lead to reformed laws. It will not be an easy process and it will not happen overnight.

Which is why I am excited for the training academy coming up.

Plenary and session topics will include:
● Intersections of race, gender and sexuality in HIV criminalization
● Centering the rights of sex workers and other over­criminalized groups
● Updates and tips from active state­based campaigns against HIV criminalization
● Supporting leadership of people living with HIV in the movement to end HIV criminalization

When I saw this list, there was an open call for submitting abstracts to present at the training. Now, remember I have no extensive or deep knowledge in all of this. But I have learned to BE the change that I seek, so I submitted an abstract. My first ever! Terrifying experience by the way; got accepted! And I have the most amazing co-presenter! Olivia Ford, former Communications Director of Positive Women's Network! *mind blown*

Whether my abstract had been chosen or not, I am excited to gain insights to help people living with HIV know that they can come out from the shadows, live their lives victoriously and not in fear. I am excited to be empowered by the conversations and strategies that will be shared. I am excited to take whatever I learn from those four days back to my state and implement change. I am excited that I will get to see history in the making.

If you are interested in attending, you can still register