Atlanta black gay men offer support, challenge HIV laws

His dick was a lethal weapon, at least according to Missouri state law. But before Michael Johnson aka “Tiger Mandingo” was sentenced in May to 30.5 years in prison for felony HIV exposure and recklessly infecting a partner with HIV, he was a fantasy realized. Big, black, athletic and desirable—until his admirers and law enforcement learned that those attributes also belonged to someone living with HIV.

It was a perfect storm centered on the complexity of race, class and HIV criminalization that a group of Atlanta black gay men refused to let Johnson endure alone.

“Dear Michael: Letters of Support and Encouragement,” held on Nov. 11 at the Phillip Rush Center, was the site of a handwritten letter campaign for Johnson, spearheaded by Counter Narrative Project, a black gay men’s media advocacy group founded by writer and activist Charles Stephens.

“There are 563,000 black gay men in this country. Michael is not alone. None of us are. He needs to know that there is a community standing behind him,” wrote Stephens on Facebook.

Anthony Antoine, a local activist and HIV counselor, was one of several gay men who showed up to pen a personal letter and to stand in solidarity with those who believe the criminal justice system that convicted Johnson had failed him.

“One black gay man to another, I wanted him to know that I cared, that his story and the implications matter to me and many,” says Antoine. “I simply wanted him to know that he’s not alone.

Whose responsibility is it, anyway?

Activist and performance artist Mickyel Bradford (who prefers female pronouns) says she had to support Johnson after being faced with the dilemma of whether or not to alert authorities after engaging in sex with a HIV-positive partner who failed to disclose his status.

“I did not ask his status before he fucked me and he did not disclose his status to me,” says Bradford. “I didn’t sero-convert because he was undetectable.”

Bradford says she chose not to have her former partner arrested, although her best friend urged her to do so.

“Many people see law enforcement as the only possible solution. I cannot let my partner become Michael.”

How is one partner’s responsibility for self-care dependent upon the disclosure of another in an encounter of mutual consent? That was the question asked by AID Atlanta’s Craig Washington in an Oct. 9 op-ed in the Atlanta Voice. If the swift condemnation of Johnson’s actions in the court of public opinion was any indication, he was the “worst type of homosexual:” “a predatory monster,” “an HIV-positive Buck,” and as a person living with HIV, he was ultimately responsible for ensuring his partner’s safety by refusing to engage in condomless sex. Antoine disagrees.

“None of us have a gift certificate to leave protection of a negative status, personal prevention of transmission up to anyone else, not even the law, HIV is 100 percent preventable,” he says.

“The idea of onus or personal responsibility is the same framework used by people who talk about sagging pants or black on black crime,” says Bradford. “The onus is on the state, on the government, on the institutions that make it possible for citizens to still be in an HIV epidemic with no end in sight.”

Michael Johnson aka ‘Tiger Mandingo.’ (Photo via Facebook)

It can happen in Georgia

It’s not far-fetched to believe that the next Michael Johnson is living among us in Georgia. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Georgia ranked fifth in the nation for the highest number of new HIV diagnoses in 2013. And while other racial groups have seen a decline in new HIV infections, African-American gay and bisexual men continue to be severely affected. Advocates for the repeal of HIV criminalization laws, such as Georgia Code 16-5-60, say such laws do more harm than good.

“Laws criminalizing people living with HIV are all about stigma, and the perverse desire for people in power to put people with less power behind bars,” says Stephens.

Gregory R. Nevins, Counsel and Employment Fairness Program Strategist at Lambda Legal, tells Georgia Voice that “the law is a public health disaster.”

“Since the law applies to only those who learn of an HIV-positive test, those who never get tested cannot be prosecuted—another feature of the law that is completely at odds with public health objectives,” he says.

“People who are HIV-positive have been prosecuted and sentenced for years simply for spitting on someone,” says Antoine. “Why aren’t we all outraged by this?