by Gavin Myers
HIV is not a crime, enough with all this jail!
HIV is NOT a crime! ACT UP! Decriminalize!
Healthcare...Treatment is a human right! FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!
These were the impassioned refrains of several dozen HIV activists who protested HIV criminalization outside the 2012 Presidential Debate at Hofstra University in Long Island Tuesday night. Wearing bright orange jump suits and black anti-criminalization t-shirts, the lively group of protestors sought to impart the critical message: laws that seek to criminalize a disease—HIV—have to go.
As a legal intern at CHLP, I attended Tuesday's protest with members of Queerocracy, ACT UP New York, and various Occupy groups. The entire trip, which lasted from 3 pm until 9 pm, was a great way to become involved with grass-roots HIV activism in New York in a way that I have not done recently. We left the West Village in yellow school buses (which I must admit I hadn't taken in many years) in the late afternoon and pushed onward in gridlock traffic to Long Island.
What surprised me most were the size, intensity, and demographic of the gathering, which included dozens of people, notably many twenty-somethings. To be frank, I anticipated a smaller gathering of folks, largely because in recent years there has been a perception among some that HIV is not a big deal because it is a treatable chronic illness, not a death sentence. Whether this lingering perception is correct is a matter of debate, but the protest did at least prove that HIV activism among New Yorkers is alive and well.
The protest itself began outside a McDonald's en route to the major traffic intersection in front of Hofstra. At the McDonald's, protestors began airing some of their concerns. The content of the protest focused on some of the larger social justice issues that are inextricably linked with HIV criminalization: racism and homophobia.
In addition, the protest sought to debunk false notions of how HIV can be transmitted, such as transmission through saliva. One would think that in 2012, everyone would understand the basic routes of HIV transmission: unprotected anal and vaginal sex, IV drug use that involves sharing syringes, and perinatally from mother to child . However, it made sense that the protest at least touched on disproving transmission myths, since these myths have often fueled hysterical views of HIV as an out-of-control disease, providing fodder to those who advocate criminalizing transmission.
Although the protest did not expose all of the collateral consequences of HIV criminalization--such as the inability of lifetime sex offenders to get public housing--the protest ultimately made me realize the extent to which HIV is a syndemic: it is not just a disease but a social problem.
My work at CHLP has focused on the availability of public housing to those with criminal records, and through this work, I have observed how the law can influence the everyday experiences of those living with HIV, for better and for worse. For instance, if a person is convicted of transmitting HIV, that person may be unable to obtain public housing because of his or her criminal record. That affects not only the person with the felony conviction, but also his or her children, partners, and loved ones.
After protesting outside McDonald's, the demonstrators continued marching through the streets of Hempstead, attracting the attention of the police who wielded a megaphone from a patrol car to tell protestors to move to the side of the road because they were "blocking vehicular traffic."
"Tighten up! Tighten up! You'll be arrested if you don't get onto the sidewalk!" was the response from some protest organizers. Despite the police presence, the protestors pushed onward towards an intersection near the university where they continued to garner attention from passers-by.
Besides referring to the dangers of HIV criminalization, some protestors held signs supporting federal legislation to move toward de-criminalizing HIV. Specifically, the protest encouraged support of H.R. 3053, the REPEAL HIV Discrimination Act, which was introduced by Congresswoman Barbara Lee in September 2011. That bill would require a review of all federal and state laws, policies, and regulations regarding the criminal prosecution of individuals for HIV-related offenses.
I am hoping that the peaceful but pointed protest had a positive impact on the hundreds of people in attendance at the debates and the people they were there to represent. Even if only a few people were convinced that using HIV as evidence of a crime is not an effective or humane way to stop the disease's spread, in my view, the protest achieved its purpose.
Gavin Myers is a legal intern at the Center for HIV Law and Policy. Gavin completed a bachelor of arts at Brown University in anthropology and a master of arts at Harvard University in anthropology. Before attending law school at Northeastern University, Gavin also received a master's in public health from Brown University. Gavin is interested in HIV advocacy and is co-founder of a Rhode Island-based HIV/AIDS prevention nonprofit called PL-AIDS Project that focuses on increasing awareness and utilization of biomedical prevention for HIV (PEP and PrEP).