Georgia’s HIV criminalization laws are heavy-handed and unnecessary, according to activists who addressed a crowd of about 100 at the Phillip Rush Center on Tuesday evening.
Many states, including Georgia, have made it a felony for HIV-positive people to have sex with someone who is HIV-negative without disclosing their status, even if protection, like condoms, is used and even if the disease is not transmitted.
“My Fabulous Disease” blogger Mark King organized the event, which included Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham, AID Atlanta’s Craig Washington, Lambda Legal’s Greg Nevins, SERO Project Executive Director Sean Strub and Assistant Director Robert Suttle.
Following the speakers was a question-and-answer session where members of the audience asked questions and shared personal stories of how HIV has impacted their lives.
“It may seem complex, or it might seem obscure even, it’s not,” said King after the forum. “It’s real. It has an impact for people living with HIV and it’s going to force us to advocate for ourselves again, in a way we really haven’t had to do in 10 or 15 years.”
The ultimate goal, according to the speakers, should be reducing stigma associated with the disease, both in and out of the LGBT community. Such stigmas prevent many with HIV from seeking treatment or disclosing their status to friends and sexual partners.
“A lot of criminalization is being driven by stigma,” King said. “And one thing we heard from people is that stigma is worse. Everything is better, medically, we’re better, but in terms of social stigma, it’s worse. People feel far less comfortable coming out about their HIV, sharing with their friends or partners and that’s what’s driving the problem.”
Activists want to eliminate HIV criminalization altogether, though they acknowledge the need to punish those who intentionally endanger others by infecting them with HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases.
The vast majority of those with HIV do not intentionally attempt to infect others and assault laws could be applied to those who do, King said.
But how can HIV-positive persons protect themselves from possible legal recourse?
In addition to practicing safe sex and keeping a close eye on viral loads, other measures can be taken to ensure that those with HIV are protected from the law.
Nevins, an attorney with Lambda Legal, suggested keeping a record of disclosure, be it through a text message, in-person conversation or otherwise.
If someone who is HIV-positive is accused of not disclosing their status, it becomes that person’s responsibility to prove they actually did disclose, Nevins said.