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Do You Snore at Night? Are You HIV+? Am I Going to Jail?

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Photo from Queerocracy.

Guest post by Cassidy Gardner, Queerocracy

There are a lot of things you’d probably want to know before dating someone. Do they wash their dishes right after they use them? Will they remember your birthday? Cheat on you? The list could be endless. We all take risks, risks in the name of passion, necessity, fear and/or impulse. Sometimes taking care of ourselves means taking risks but we have to decide as individuals when those situations arise whether or not to accept them. Sleeping with someone else is always a risk. You will never know all of the answers to those questions you wish you had asked. Or maybe that was exactly the risk you wanted, knowing no answers. Who are any of us to expect disclosure of all the intimate details of someone else’s life without ever asking or gaining one’s trust? That includes someone’s HIV status. If I don’t ask, who are you to tell? Disclosure is a process and even the mundane things can hold weight.

The politics around disclosure are complicated and they are not getting any easier.

I am one of many founders of QUEEROCRACY, an organization that through direct action and political art/media works to cultivate the leadership of LGBTQ folks and HIV positive persons in New York City. In the past year and a half our main focus has been to actively fight back against HIV discrimination and criminalization. There are currently 34 states and two U.S territories that have criminal laws that punish those exposing HIV to another person even if actual transmission never occurred and the perceived risk was minimal to none. .

In my work I often hear the dangerous misconception that those not disclosing their positive status are doing it as an act of revenge and mal intention. This has contributed to the disturbing justification to incarcerate positive folks simply due to their status. And this is just one of the issues.

According to the Positive Justice Project’s HIV Criminalization Fact Sheet, “at least 35 states have singled out people who have tested positive for HIV for criminal prosecution or enhanced sentences, either under HIV-specific criminal laws or under general criminal laws governing crimes such as assault, attempted murder or reckless endangerment.”  In such cases, proof of intent to transmit and/or actual transmission of HIV have rarely been necessary for prosecution.  Disclosure is often the only affirmative defense available to those facing prosecution, yet more often than not, it is extremely difficult to prove, considering these conversations more often than not take place in private settings and scenarios. Placing the burden of disclosure solely on the positive person creates a false justification for negative folks to take advantage of the vulnerability positive people have underneath these criminal laws keeping a chokehold and a standstill on the possibility of sexual liberation to become more than a ‘cool’ thing to talk about private liberal college classrooms.

Yet, HIV criminalization is the elephant in the room among AIDS activists, ASOs, LGBT rights organizations and many politicians alike. So what is stopping us from making this a pinnacle issue amongst us AIDS activists and advocates?

As someone who has been involved in AIDS activism for a good portion of my life thus far, but is obviously still on the newer side of things, I wonder if it is our attachment to the 1980s and 90s as the ultimate in AIDS activism and advocacy. As the exhibition WHY WE FIGHT highlights, it was a time of influential activism from many individuals and groups. The work they have done, and many continue to do, inspires and informs much of the work of QUEEROCRACY. In our actions we are often aware we are harking back to a time where AIDS actions were a common occurrence. And yet, I can’t help but feel our fascination with the past has lead to lackadaisical action around HIV criminalization. I often see people so obsessed with the past they neglect the present. With that said, there is nothing wrong with a healthy dose of admiration and remembrance but we cannot confuse the past with the needs, fights, faces and fears of the present  I have a friend who was asked to work on an archiving project around AIDS, and simply put the funders said that they should only go up to 1996. My friend pushed back knowing all too well that if they only went up to the introduction of ART so much of the present would be lost in the markings of the past.

The present matters. We need a new movement because the old movement can’t show us how to fight for something that those in the past weren’t concentrated on then. We can learn from the past, there is no doubt in that, but just as important we need to be aware and react to what is going on in the present. Which brings us back to disclosure. It has always been difficult. Even before there was a name for it the virus was stigmatized but now it is also heavily criminalized.

We are in a moment where there is no shortage of impassioned activists, only of those who refuse to recognize their work for the fearlessness that it embodies. We should be able to treat and appreciate the past in the ways we want the present to be treated years or decades later. These groups do exist;  the Sero Project, Positive Women’s Network-USA, Positive Justice Project, AIDS Action Now! and many others who work with a fearlessness that demands no virus be put on trial. Many who fight with a fearlessness that exposes the neglect of support from AIDS advocates when Nushawn Williams was imprisoned, vindicated and turned into an AIDS monster all over national news. A fearlessness from those within prisons advocating for their own HIV justice. A fearlessness that does not leave those at risk of incarceration and those incarcerated invisible within the HIV/AIDS movement. We need a time where disclosure can be sexier than it is scary. 

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