Bryan C. Jones has been living with HIV for almost 31 years. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio where he is active as an advocate on HIV-related issues at the local, state and national levels. He founded Gentlemen’s Quarterly, a men’s support group with more than a hundred members. He’s a peer educator, a member of the steering committee for the Campaign to End AIDS, and a performer with a one-man theatrical piece called And I Die Slowly dealing with his journey through life with HIV. He was interviewed by CHLP’s Andrea Sears.
Andrea Sears How did you become involved in the movement against the criminalization of HIV?
Bryan Jones Well it’s always been an issue with me and I was at a conference where I heard someone from the Center for HIV Law and Policy speak. I’d always wanted to do something, but I didn’t have an idea about how to do it. You know I constantly try to keep educating myself by going to conferences so from that point on I got involved. I think it was about three or four years ago.
And then I was on one of the CHLP conference calls, and they were having these roundtable discussions or these meetings in different cities and I kept asking them, “Well, why can’t you have it in Ohio? You know we need it just as much as anyone else.” I was the only person from Ohio on the call and I kept bugging them and they said OK. So we finally got together and organized a panel discussion here in Cleveland and about a hundred people showed up. It was really successful. So from that point we got other people involved from different cities in Ohio so now we have three different groups.
I went to a national leadership conference that I’m involved in organizing and I had Rashida Richardson come talk about it there, and it just kind of snowballed from there.
AS Have you had personal experience or known people who’ve been personally affected by HIV criminalization in Ohio?
BJ Oh yes I do. I haven’t been criminalized, but I live my life every day in fear of being criminalized. So I’ve been personally affected for years, just on my own, waiting for somebody to knock on my door. Not that I don’t disclose, but you never know. It affects your life to where you don’t really want to be in a relationship because it’s hard to prove, you know, short of getting someone to sign something. Most people don’t want to sign anything. They really want to be in a relationship or something. Yeah, a relationship is one thing, having sex is another thing.
Many of the affected people are in the transgender or the sex worker communities. I’ve known people who’ve been arrested and prosecuted two, three times.
AS What are the laws in Ohio that are most frequently invoked for prosecuting people with HIV?
BJ We do have an HIV-specific mandatory disclosure law on the books. And it’s more so used with people arrested for solicitation after receiving a positive result. But solicitation is such a broad range of things. If you are walking down the street and you approach a car or wave at someone in a car, it could be a friend or anyone, they could stop you and say you were soliciting. Or you could be coming out of a club. And like I said it’s very big with the transgender community.
You can have too many condoms in your bag, which will lead the police to think there’s probable cause that you were soliciting. They just come up with all kinds of things. You could be someone they have known who’s solicited before. But just because you may be out somewhere, it doesn’t mean you’re out soliciting. So that’s how it’s mainly used.
I knew a guy who was living with a woman. Four years they were living together. She claims that he didn’t tell her his status. I find that hard to believe that if you’re living with somebody and he’s on medication and he’s in treatment, in care, that you wouldn’t have disclosed. But at any rate they ended up giving him ten years.
So that’s just like it is. Like I said, almost everyone is affected by this. You have some people who don’t want to disclose so they isolate. I have known people who, as a result of this, just died in silence because disclosure plays a big part in your quality of life, or failure to disclose or having to disclose.
I’ve known people who get a positive result and at the same time you get that positive result you have to sign a form that says it’s a felony to not disclose, to have sex, and a lot of people barely understand what it means at that point to be HIV positive. So now you’re telling me I’m HIV positive, now you’re telling me it’s a felony. I can’t even read the language on this paper and really understand what you’re telling me. So you know what? I’m just going to isolate myself and go into depression, which eventually causes substance abuse issues. I mean it’s a gateway to so many other things that people don’t even realize, and may never again have this conversation about the nondisclosure laws or these HIV specific criminalization laws, it reduces the quality of life that people have.
AS What is the status of the efforts in Ohio to reform or repeal the HIV specific criminal law?
BJ Coming up in October we’re having a big rally. I was responsible for getting the Campaign to End AIDS National Advocacy Leadership Summit to convene here in Cleveland. My hope is to get advocates from around the country, as well as Jamaica and Africa, to come to Ohio and to help me have a big rally downtown dealing with HIV criminalization. We’re also talking with the Cleveland city council and county legislators, and moving towards Columbus, Ohio, which is our state capital.
There’s room on the platform for all of us, but we need to get more positive people at the forefront of the fight because we’re the ones that are affected.
AS And how have the Positive Justice Project and the Center for HIV Law and Policy been helpful in this effort?
BJ It’s been very helpful. First of all it has a wealth of resources and information. Also it puts you in contact with people from around the country. And it was very instrumental in helping me organize here in Ohio. It gave me a vehicle to move through and a vehicle through which to understand what was going on with HIV criminalization.
And it also made me realize that one person can make a difference because, like I said, I joined a conversation and said, “Ohio needs this.” And things started to happen. So now we’ve had several successful panel discussions around the state. And they have been instrumental in that.
Also, every time I call on the Center for HIV Law and Policy for information they’ll send it to me promptly. They have no problem with coming into a city and helping me with a discussion or panel or something to that effect. As a matter of fact I am going to be engaging the Positive Justice Project to help me solidify the language for the rally that I’m doing in Cleveland in October.
I’m a staunch supporter of the Center for HIV Law and Policy and the Positive Justice Project. They’ve brought clarity to my life, put it that way.
CHLP’s Unsung Heroes is a series of portraits included in The Fine Print blog of individuals who are contributing mightily, without fanfare, to keep our issues, needed agencies, and members of our communities alive.