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When People with HIV Became Suicide Bombers

| 5 Comments
Maybe we should blame the criminal prosecutions of people with HIV on the mythical legend of Gaetan Dugas, also known by his slanderous nickname, Patient Zero. Dugas was a gay flight attendant from Canada who, according to Randy Shilts' 1987 book And the Band Played On, was among the first people with HIV in the United States.

As the story goes, energetic Dugas (right) spent lots of time in the very early 1980′s getting laid in practically every city with an airport, even after learning he had the mysterious new "gay cancer." He wanted to go out with a bang, the book claimed, and he didn't particularly care who he might infect in the process. The book repeated rumors that after sex with bath house tricks Dugas would point out his skin lesions and then announce, "now you have it."

Except the story isn't true. Two years ago, Shilts' former editor admitted the book needed a "literary device" and had encouraged Shilts to create the epidemic's first "AIDS monster." The scandalous sex life of Gaetan Dugas fit the bill nicely. Dugas died in 1984, never having the opportunity to answer his accusers regarding his alleged behaviors.

Instead of placing responsibility with everyone having sex, the book painted people with HIV as suicide bombers. The damage, to the truth and to the public image of people with AIDS, still reverberates today.

Laws exist in more than 30 States that criminalize people with HIV for not disclosing their status to sexual partners. Even where there are no HIV-specific laws, charges range from assault to attempted murder to bioterrorism. It should be noted that the vast majority of prosecutions do not involve the transmission of HIV. Often, the person charged used a condom, had an undetectable viral load, or engaged in sexual behavior that could not have infected their partner.

Anyone with HIV and a pissed off ex-lover should feel worried, since these cases often become a matter of whom you believe. Prosecutors and unfriendly juries are often shocked that people with HIV are having sex at all. They could care less about condoms or undetectable viral loads. They just want people who don't disclose their status to face serious charges.

A lot of people see this as righteous and are taking the bait. Many of us know someone infected by a sex partner who lied about their status, and we want that jerk to pay for it. This sense of vengeance plays into the hands of a conservative legal system that is more than happy to send some diseased fags to jail. For a really long time. Regardless of the actual harm inflicted.

This issue is a real mine field of emotion, justice, science, and payback. Fortunately, an upcoming event will bring together advocates, legal experts and people living with HIV to discuss criminalization and map out a strategy to address it.

"HIV is Not a Crime" is the first national conference on HIV criminalization.  It will be held on June 2-5, 2014, in Grinnell, Iowa.  Yes, Iowa. Some of the most effective activism around this issue is happening there, where State legislators are actually re-thinking their own laws and health policies as a result of smart advocacy and education. I urge you to alert your local HIV advocates about this important event.

Regardless of your views on criminalization, we can all agree that anyone who intentionally seeks to harm another person should be held accountable for it. That's why we have laws against hurting other people.

But why are there laws on the books specific to HIV non-disclosure? HIV has its very own laws ordering people to disclose if they have it. The same cannot be said for other infectious viruses such as Human Papillomavirus (HPV) or Hepatitis C, which actually kill more people each year. The reason, in the mind of many advocates, is because those viral conditions are not as closely associated with gay sexuality. Or race. Or the disenfranchised. I hope you're getting the picture.

Criminalization is not limited to whether or not someone discloses, even if those scenarios capture our imagination the most. Laws have other ways to punish those with HIV. 

Charges for an unrelated crime can be elevated if the defendant is HIV positive. Prostitution, or spitting at a cop, or punching somebody in the face in a bar, can carry more severe sentences based on the fact the accused is HIV positive.

In other words, defendants are guilty of living with HIV. That should give you real pause.

Surveys conducted by The SERO Project indicate that knowing about the risk of being charged with non-disclosure is an impediment to HIV testing. After witnessing how people with HIV are being treated by the judicial system, getting tested might feel like exposing yourself to potential prosecution.

These prosecutions do not rely upon the context of HIV disclosure, either. "The moral obligation to disclose increases with the degree of risk present," said Sean Strub, founder of The SERO Project and one of the organizers of the Iowa conference, "but the context of the sexual encounter is also a factor.  In the context of a committed relationships, the disclosure obligation is much greater than in a sex club, for example."


The key point here is morality. Disclosing your status is a moral issue, not a criminal one. Even in the worst years of AIDS, when the virus reliably killed you, we called our doctors to start treatment when we got infected. We didn't call the cops. Blaming someone for our own risk behaviors seemed ludicrous. It still does.

You wouldn't know it from news reports, which often feature race-driven cases of predatory men lurking around the countryside infecting the populous. Suicide bombers continue to titillate the media.

Look closely at the stories and you will find that "not disclosing" is usually equated with "intentionally infecting." It's as if sex of any kind on the part of someone with HIV is malicious. One side effect of HIV infection, it would seem, is a pathological bloodlust.

Never forget that these juicy legal stories represent the lives of real people. Sentences amounting to decades are being wielded. The convicted are having to register as sex offenders. In the often confusing landscape of sexual risk and negotiation, the person with HIV is facing grave consequences for decisions often made in the heat of the moment, or simply because they chose to protect their privacy when no risk to their partner existed.

HIV criminalization does nothing to reduce the impact of a new HIV infection.  It doubles it.

Mark



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Comments on Mark S. King's blog entry "When People with HIV Became Suicide Bombers"

Mark S King writes:

"[A] Blaming someone for our own risk behaviors seemed ludicrous. It still does."
...
"[B] Look closely at the stories and you will find that 'not disclosing is usually equated with 'intentionally infecting.'
[C] It's as if sex of any kind on the part of someone with HIV is malicious.
[D] One side effect of HIV infection, it would seem, is a pathological bloodlust."

...and in the above we have the core failing of HIV Destigmatization, which has only 20-25 years of *intensifying criminalization* to show for itself.

A + B are rhetorical sleights of hand, willfully and carefully omitting the issues of recklessness and intent that are inherent in disclosure of HIV-status. this might work great on some Debate Team...but when it comes to destigmatizing one of the most feared and stigmatized ultra-deadly infectious diseases in human history, attempting sleight-of-rhetorical hand is disastrous...you lose credibility that you will have a very hard time getting back, AND your diminished credibility reflects on all HIV+ people when you present yourself as a leader of HIV+ opinion.

NO ONE GETS TO BYPASS THE AMYGDALA...this is the primitive part of the human brain that regulates Fight or Flight reflexes. when a broad population has extensive fears about a minority with a NON-benign or malefic characteristic, attempting to BS one's way around those fears ONLY CONFIRMS THEM MORE FIRMLY. basically the amygdala screams "Intruder Alert! someone is trying to play on my sympathy and sell me Death!"

Thus, A + B = C + D

i know you're not gonna wake up to this from my saying so Mark...my only hope is that somewhere in your and others' weird belief that these talking points will be helpful, you end up storing these truths i note here...

...so that when your Debate Team tactics crash and burn horribly on the national and international political stage, you might at least be able to pivot or adjust better.

However, i have no intention of sitting back and letting this maladroit strategy with 25 years of failure speak for me or the HIV+ people i know.

Mark, I have lived with AIDS for 30 years. I am under Google -JoeMonroeArt , there is my tenacious story of an artist living with AIDS, coming back over and over again . I do not believe people who are infected and have sex should not be jailed. I do believe there are those who have no malicious agenda being infected , yet having sex. I, though, got caught in a nasty web that one attractive, sexually man's admitted testament that since he got AIDS, he was damned well going to take down everyone he could with him. I have been blessed to live this long , if that is a blessing , I am still deciding. AIDS means nothing anymore and people like myself, who were stalled by AIDS and want our careers back are screwed, who cares, it's all about Africa, I just feel those that went through all the trials, near death more than a couple times, should be helped, for because of us, men newly diagnosed only have to take one pill now. But I digress . I watched as this man left a trail of dead bodies as he lived and watched these men die with satisfaction . A few of those dying men tracked me down as this man's ex- lover. They kept asking me " Why?"All I could tell them is I wished I could have warned them. This man has been dead a decade now. Thank God. He was a suicide bomber. There should be a moral outrage toward men that do this with purpose , watching his dirty work, like a serial killer. This man told me after he said" let's exchange fluids" that since he had AIDS, I did too and he would take down as many men as he could with him. I couldn't speak. I moved, I could not watch. Then he followed me and began infecting men in my city. If there was a way of documenting any man's death agenda, something should be done. What.... Is the question.

Hello,
I remember all to well the losses of the 80's and remember when I was stationed in San Francisco 1990-1993 the great headline in the BayAreaReporter NO OBITS! That was a great turning point. I am still in my own personal battle and work in a prison infirmary and see numerous cases of individuals incarcerated for "intentionally exposing others to a deadly disease". Um, excuse me, but someone giving someone else meth or exposing them to Hep C is far worse in the long run, but where is the prosecution in these cases? Having been in the military stationed on both coasts, and having been back in the Midwest the past 16 years, I still see an incredible amount of ignorance and wrongful prosecution.

Jeton Ademaj wrote: attempting sleight-of-rhetorical hand is disastrous...you lose credibility...AND your diminished credibility reflects on all HIV+ people when you present yourself as a leader of HIV+ opinion.

I am sorry, but most fair-minded individuals would stick to the fact that one person's opinion is just that - one person's opinion. Mr. King does not represent, nor is a leader of HIV+ opinion. He is one person who has courageously decided to talk about his experiences and his life, period. There are many others who express their opinions here on this website. Are they all leaders in HIV+ opinion? No, they are just people talking, and writing about something they feel strongly about.

Lance Desker, i will amend my comments thusly: i recall no claim from Mark S King calling himself a leader of HIV+ opinion, however he has most definitely been presented as such in numerous venues...including POZ.com. furthermore i know personally that he speaks for a great many, who have directly told me so. when it comes to HIV Criminalization, he is not "one more person with an opinion"...nor is Sean Strub.

i don't know what sites you read or what venues you hang out in, so i can't discern whether your assertion about what "fair-minded people would say" is made from ignorance or willful sophistry.

what i can definitely say with confidence is that when (not if) some enemy of gay rights or the rights of HIV+ ppl (or most likely an enemy of both) decides to use Mark S King's opinions against him or us, that enemy will have no difficulty portraying Mark S King as a "leader of HIV+ opinion".

that's actually a well-deserved compliment to Mark S. King, but his analysis on this issue is incorrect anyway...as is your own.

At least your analysis won't make HIV Quarantine a 21st Century political football. King's very easily could.

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This page contains a single entry by Mark S. King published on April 2, 2014 3:29 PM.

Will HIV Ever Be Safe Enough for You? was the previous entry in this blog.

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