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What Makes A Leader?

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A slightly different approach was taken this year at AIDSWatch 2014. Along with AIDS United and the Treatment Access Expansion Project (TAEP), the organizing team included all of the national networks of people living with HIV through the *U.S. PLHIV Caucus (United States People Living with HIV Caucus).

But it wasn't only the deeper involvement of people living with HIV that impressed me; what amazed me was that the organizers decided to recognize an HIV criminalization survivor for outstanding leadership and service to people living with HIV.

I was nominated by the U.S. PLHIV Caucus as a recipient of AIDSWatch 2014 Positive Leadership Award, along with other well-deserving honorees, for our leadership in advocating for an end to HIV/AIDS in the United States.

AIDSWatch is an annual two-day event for congressional visits, advocacy training, and networking that prepares attendees from across the United States for visits with their representatives in Congress, providing resources, talking points, and answers to questions that Congressional staffers may have about programs related to people living with HIV and AIDS.
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I greatly appreciated the opportunity to be on a panel during the orientation session and briefly share information about HIV criminalization. I spoke about how people could help with efforts advocating for HIV criminalization reform by strongly urging legislators to co-sponsor two existing bills: HR 1843, the Repeal Existing Policies that Encourage and Allow Legal HIV Discrimination Act of 2013, and Senate bill 1790, also called the REPEAL HIV Discrimination Act of 2013.

"May the work (I've done) speak for me!" Those were the words I quoted in a building on Capitol Hill during my acceptance of the Positive Leadership Award, my first honor ever for my contribution to framing the discourse around HIV criminalization.

When I got into this work I wondered if the gay community or HIV community would ever see me as one of their own -- or would they only recognize me as a criminal or "a condemned person" and would want to have nothing to do with me.

You only hope that you will be listened to when you tell your story, when you pour out so much of yourself everywhere you go, raising awareness and understanding of HIV criminalization through meetings, interviews, articles, written statements and countless community forums across the United States. Sometimes it seems so small, it seems like you've done nothing at all. You hope that people will care enough to hear what you have to say.

Needless to say, I can now see that my HIV community believes not only in the work that I do, but believes in me. May the work I've done speak for me.

*The U.S. PLHIV Caucus is a network of networks, organizations (including Positive Women's Network-USA, the Sero Project, Globabl Network of People Living With HIV-North America, the International Community of Women With HIV-North America, Campaign to End AIDS) and activists openly living with HIV.

Everything you need to know you will learn in Iowa.

This conference is for those of you who want to show your willingness to do more to help raise awareness and mobilize grassroots action to change HIV-specific criminal statutes. This is your opportunity to TAKE ACTION.

I'm happy to announce registration is open for the first-ever national HIV is Not a Crime conference. The gathering will be held from June 2nd to 5th, 2014, at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa.

It is a great opportunity for those of us who are grassroots community organizers, HIV, LGBTQ, social justice advocates, experts in law and policy, and most importantly individuals living with HIV from across the country, to gather for a common cause to end the inappropriate use of criminalization laws against people with HIV--we are gathering to end this injustice.

The conference will feature three days of workshops and practical trainings on state advocacy, grassroots organizing, activism, and familiarity with the legal, medical, media, and public health issues related to HIV criminalization.

As a result of the conference, individual and organizational participants will be better equipped to initiate or advance advocacy in their home states addressing HIV-related criminalization, stigma and discrimination. The conference will help to rebuild and reenergize state-based HIV advocacy efforts.  

Lastly, I'm grateful for the opportunity to be one of the conference organizers, planning along with other allies and advocates eager for reform. As someone who was prosecuted under Louisiana's HIV criminalization statute, and served six months in prison in that state, this conference is both important and personal to me.  As a person living with HIV, I never forget that my voice and participation has a profoundly important impact.

Registration information can be found on the Conference Website.

You can also LIKE the conference Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/HIVisNotaCrimeConference?

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I'm A Survivor!

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I am not a criminal. I am not a sex offender. I'm a survivor!

I am among people who have been victims of HIV criminalization, either prosecuted or threatened with prosecution for non-disclosure of our HIV status before intimate contact with another person. Several of us are either presently awaiting trial or sentencing, in the process of appealing our convictions or waiting to learn whether or not charges filed will be carried through to prosecution.

Some of us were convicted and did not have to serve time, others of us have served years in prison or jail, are subject to sex offender registration and other restrictions. Some of us are gay, a number are not. Some of us have become spokespeople or advocates and talked to the media or policy leaders; others of us have not wanted to or have not been able or ready to do that.

Each situation is different, of course, but one thing we all share is the profoundly stigmatizing effect of HIV criminalization and the harm it has done to our families, our futures and us.

As an HIV-positive black gay man who was prosecuted under Louisiana's HIV criminalization statute, I served six months in prison in that state and am now a convicted felon and registered sex offender, which was a requirement of my conviction -- so I couldn't return to my old job. I needed a whole new life plan.

Prior to my arrest and conviction, I had a promising career working in the Louisiana state appellate court system. A criminal conviction was certainly not what I expected in my future when I tested positive for HIV ten years ago while enlisting in the U.S. military upon graduating from college.

A few days after my release, I found veteran AIDS activist and author Sean Strub's POZ blog about HIV criminalization and contacted him, offering to volunteer in support of advocacy to help change these statutes.

I testify that it was out of pure misery that activism became my ministry to do anti-criminalization advocacy work, through the SERO Project, a network of people living with HIV and allies fighting for freedom from HIV stigma and injustice.

Over the last several years, the goal has been to put people who have faced or are presently facing HIV criminalization in touch with each other, to provide support, share resources and find comfort in the knowledge that, as singular and lonely as our experience has been, there are others who have at least some understanding of it from a similarly personal perspective.

We are, through the SERO Project, always working hard, to create a shared advocacy agenda that will give criminalization "survivors," SERO Survivors, the chance to speak with the strength of a unified voice that: We are not criminals. We are not sex offenders. We are survivors!


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