March 29, 2017
by Shyronn Jones
On March 23, 2017, Georgia Equality helped those who are passionate about reforming Georgia’s outdated, discriminatory and unscientific HIV criminalization laws by hosting an HIV Criminalization Advocacy Training. As part of a comprehensive, community-centered approach to HIV prevention and care, this training was led by Emily Brown, Nina Martinez and Torrian Baskerville of Georgia Equality and covered: the content and history of Georgia’s HIV criminalization laws; the main reasons HIV advocates want to reform these laws; key arguments against reform, how to listen to the opposition and effectively respond; and basic facts about HIV science that all decriminalization advocates need to know.
I’m a firm believer that the state of Georgia is in need of a major overhaul, a paradigm shift and self evaluation of the systematic damages that the HIV criminalization laws have on public health. In my reading of GA. CODE ANN. 16-5-60(c), I found many disturbing parts. Throughout, the language DEHUMANIZES people living with HIV. The use of and repetitive use of “HIV infected person” deprives people living with HIV of positive human qualities, as if once a person contracts HIV they are no longer worthy of respect and dignity.
The main topic of discussion regarding the HIV criminalization law is in section (c)1, where disclosure takes precedence over actual transmission. This fearmongering, ass-backwards law was designed without consideration of the actual risks of HIV exposure! Lo and behold, HIV disclosure happens more than lawmakers and/or the general public would like to admit, and it should be no surprise that disclosure happens more often in safe, empathetic and educated environments. The threat of a Georgia felony conviction and imprisonment for up to ten years for non-disclosure drives people living with HIV further toward hiding their status; and incentivizes those who are unaware of their status not to get tested for HIV: “Take the test and risk arrest,” as Nina Martinez, HIV criminalization advocacy facilitator, put it. With proper care, people living with HIV can achieve viral suppression, which makes it impossible to transmit.Studies have shown 92% HIV transmissions are from people who are unaware of their positive HIV status or are not getting the medical care they need. Given this statistic, the public health imperative should be making sure everyone is tested and that those who test positive have access to care. The threat of criminalization does nothing to address the barriers to care that drive the epidemic in the U.S. On the contrary, it feeds stigma, which makes it less likely that people will get tested, and less likely that they will seek care if they test positive.
No one and no law is perfect! The time is now to dramatically change how Georgia’s laws and society function to achieve an HIV/AIDS free generation. One of society’s roles is to uphold personal responsibility because personal responsibility is non-transferrable. HIV prevention methods, such as using condoms, Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), or Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP), should be taken without depending on a person to disclose their HIV status. Getting tested should be routine, because when a person is diagnosed and treated for HIV, transmission can be prevented–treatment as prevention (TasP).
A minor discussion about the HIV criminalization law is in section (c)5, regarding organ donations from people living with HIV. With the HIV organ donor ban now lifted in the United States, and the Emory Transplant Center in Georgia performing an organ transplant from a donor who was living with HIV, the state of Georgia must be accountable to catch up with the developments of science and to uphold the human rights of its citizens.
There are resolutions in Georgia’s House and State of Representatives to reform HIV criminalization laws: HR 240, co-sponsored by Representatives Cooper of the 43rd, Willard of the 51st, Hugley of the 136th, and Broadrick of the 4th and others; SR 465, co-sponsored by Senator Fort of the 39th; and HB 454, co-sponsored by Representative Cannon of the 58th, Hawkins of the 27th, Evans of the 42nd,Deffenbaugh of the 1st, Cantrell of the 22nd and others. There are also many local and national coalitions of organizations and individuals working to end HIV criminalization in the United States.
Keep up to date on the latest developments about HIV criminalization by joining with Georgia Equality, The Georgia Coalition to End HIV Criminalization, the SERO Project, and Positive Justice Project (PJP). When discussing your concerns about HIV criminalization laws with your elected officials, share Positive Women’s Network’s fact sheet on HIV criminalization and demand the funding of proven ways to reduce HIV transmission.
Keep your eye out for my interview with Regina Willis, Freelance Reporter at Project Q Atlanta!