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Oct15

It’s offensive

Monday, 15 October 2012 Author // Brian Finch - Founder Categories // Legal, Living with HIV, Opinion Pieces, Sex and Sexuality , Brian Finch

Brian Finch and the problem he has with media coverage of the criminalization of non disclosure issue, following the recent Supreme Court decision in Canada

It’s offensive

The recent Supreme Court Ruling about HIV disclosure was a surprising step backwards. It used to be that significant risk implied unprotected sex. There was far less science back then in the days of the Cuerrier decision (1998), when we were only two years into  revolutionary HAART treatment.

But people with HIV on treatment are far less infectious now, often resulting in undetectable viral loads, the cornerstone of treatment as prevention strategies.  How is it then that treatment supposedly prevents HIV infection, yet we’ve moved to non-disclosure criteria that would have been more appropriate 14 years ago when the Supreme Court last ruled, when we were without the benefit of science on this issue?

The biggest issue I have with how the media reports all this though is that never do we read an article by an author who is HIV-positive. The discussion has been lead by those who have very little knowledge or experience with the issues at hand, and certainly  without the lived experienced of people with HIV. So the discussion has been very one–sided, often making us out as the invisible threat out to get everyone, and painting people who are HIV-negative as perpetual victims.

The most offensive article I read was in Huffington Post Canada, where the author referred to people such as myself as “sufferers with AIDS.”  Really? First of all we are HIV-positive, we don’t have AIDS, unless the author was excluding people who are HIV-positive without a clinical diagnosis of AIDS. This article wasn’t that sophisticated or nuanced.

I’m  HIV positive, and the only thing I’m suffering from is (Toronto mayor) Rob Ford, and the ever-growing wait times for the Carlton streetcar.

Where to I start to pick this apart? The language used sounds like something from the 80s. It also destroys the credibility of the writer. who had a knee-jerk reaction, as many did to the ruling.

I get so annoyed that the media is treating us as if we weren’t there. We are not people who lurk in the dark. We are your brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, friends, co-workers. We are writers, nurses, doctors, sales people, designers, lawyers.

We fly, and the chances of crashing are there. Except the airlines are not required to give you the run down on the latest maintenance checks, the plane’s history, manufacture, how long in service, the mental health of the pilots, etc. That is perfectly fine. But if we change the name of the airline to AIR AIDS, suddenly everyone is terrified beyond belief.

This is all because of the stigma attached to HIV.  No other infection has been criminalized in history. What about people who could have been potentially exposed to SARS or had given it to someone else? Why not put them in jail? What about Hep-C? We don’t focus on this.  

At least 25% of people living with HIV in Ontario (which is in the thousands) don’t know they are positive. Ironically, it is this time early on before they know that they are often the most infectious. So no matter how you slice and dice it, even if they tell you otherwise, there is a possibility that you will be with someone who is HIV-positive.  This risk can not be made zero.  But disclosure laws are based on “out of sight, out of mind”, I guess. Not a great way to go about it.

If the HiV-negative partner uses condoms, then why does it matter if the person is HIV positive? It matters because because people are scared. Our emotions take over from the intellect.  Being scared is natural, but just be upfront about it and acknowledge all the research out there which points to how the fear may be unfounded.

It’s really a dishonest discussion to be purely emotional and then try to back it up with any notion of scientifically proven risk of transmission.  I fly in a plane, and I know that any fear of flying is scientifically unfounded as I am less safe in a car. Fine, be afraid of flying, but don’t base it on accident stats.

There is still risk. You can’t have a risk-free life.

Individual Responsibility

Many people living with HIV have healthy sex lives, sometimes with other HIV-positive partners, and sometimes with those who are not.  All of my long-term relationships have been with HIV-negative men, and NONE of them became HIV positive. We simply used condoms, like I had been doing all the time anyway.  Yet, we don’t hear these stories.

At the end of the day it takes two to tango, and if you are going to put your entire trust and HIV prevention strategy in someone else’s hands by simply depending on disclosure, you are in for a rude awakening.  At the end of the day, if someone is going to engage in sex, there is an implicit acceptance of certain risks out there. 

It this is an issue my suggestion is to not go out having casual sex. No one night stands for you! Instead I’d recommend getting to know your sexual partners better, where sexual health matters can be discussed.  At least the real-world risk has been minimized.

Remember,  we hear of very few cases where individuals go out and willfully expose someone to HIV. These exceptional cases cannot be extrapolated and applied to the rest of us. The chance of you getting in a relationship where someone is not going to disclose is very small.  

Take control of your life.

What would I like to see?

The ruling is the ruling, and everyone has to accept it.

Unfortunately it has left more questions than answers. It was a partial answer. There is nothing addressing issues specific to gay men, a community that has to live a lot closer to HIV than the heterosexual world. We have our own sexual culture that creates a lot of what I call "grey zone" environments.  Who in their right mind, for instance, is going to a sex club and expects everyone there to share their HIV, HPV, HEP C &B, Syphilis status? It’s just not going to happen.

My response to criminalization is this:  It takes two to tango; if we are going to put everyone in jail who doesn’t comply, then the partners who put themselves at risk of HIV transmission, and especially those who became HIV positive, should be charged with negligent behaviour as any resultant infections will now be costing out health care system hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Hard working taxpayers are will be paying for your mistakes.

In these circumstances – and I suggest them facetiously - I wonder how those caught would think of landing in jail, being labeled a sex offender, and having their photos splashed across the country?

****

In the early 80s I didn’t blame the guy who knew his status and didn’t tell me. We didn’t use condoms. I knew I was also taking risks and I had the power to insist on condoms.  But I didn’t have the self-esteem, and sex was a form of personal validation. I knew the risks, I played the game and I lost.

I have a friend who was infected by her ex-husband many, many years ago. She also doesn’t believe in throwing him in jail. It solves nothing.

****

It’s too bad the media has such a hard time dealing with complex issues. Instead of calling for people’s heads, shouldn’t we be using the mechanisms already in place?  Criminal law should be saved as a mechanism of last resort.

We have a public health system that is there for this very reason. They know who is positive in the province and have their names. (Even if one gets tested anonymously, as soon as you go to a doctor for follow-up, it will get reported.) Public health has coercive powers and their mandate is prevention. Individuals can receive disclosure orders, court order fines and jail time. There could be case management systems in place providing the supports necessary (especially when dealing with gender-based violence, domestic violence, mental health issues, immigration and cultural influences that may impact disclosure)

Why the sledgehammer of criminal law is the first line of action is beyond me.

What is needed is a graduated response working up to criminal law only when necessary. Obviously someone intentionally infecting someone calls for a vastly different response than a scenario where you’re having sex that is safer than flying in a plane.

HIV People need protection from HIV negative people

Wow, this is a mind-blowing concept for people who do not live with HIV. Yes we need protection from YOU.

My first assumption about people is that they will be either hostile, judgmental, or see me as HIV and not a person. This is my starting point in every new interpersonal relationship I enter.  Such is stigma that some people will still lose their jobs, housing and family if others find out. It is negative people who create the environment in which we have to carefully navigate.

I’ve come across a number of crazy people out there. I still worry about someone who has an axe to grind, since I’m so public. It would take one baseless complaint to utterly destroy my life. For others all it takes is one bitter break-up to send someone to the police out of spite. This has happened on a number of occasions.

Women in abusive relationships faced with violence know they don’t always have control over their sexual options.  Even when women are not in sexual relationships, there is significant risk of violence upon disclosing.

The person charged with non disclosure is treated as if they were guilty, labeled by the police and media as a sex offender, and charges laid that are so serious that penalties are potentially right up there with those for murder.  So you are damn right when the consequences are such that I want protection from malicious prosecution!

It’s at the point that if I were to be involved with someone negative that I’d have a video recording of disclosure and consent, and perhaps with another document signed and witnessed by a notary as added protection.

The legal/police culture is homophobic, and HIV-phobic.  I certainly couldn’t depend on them to preserve my innocence until proven guilty.

It can all boil down to “(s)he said against (s)he said”. And guess who will be on the receiving end of bias and prejudice? It’s not going to be the HIV negative complainant.

I say it’s time to start caring so we can create a healthy environment to deal with the issues at hand. 

About the Author

Brian Finch - Founder

Brian Finch - Founder

Brian Finch, founder of PositiveLite.com. I've had a blog since 2005 when I decided one day that I just wanted to write. Since then I've grown to writing for a local Toronto magazine, Fab, and contribute to MyGayToronto.com.

I first went public in the 1980s, and with the exception of a few years of taking a break, have not really stopped. More recently (relative to twenty years ago) in 2006 I was featured in the Ontario HIV Treatment Network's documentary "Positive Voices" filmed during the 2006 International AIDS Conference.
The very same conference where I organized an action against the Conservative government for our Prime Minister not showing up, which is now known as "The Pillow Case Project" approximatel 1000 message-stenciled pillow cases were held up at the moment the government representative stood up causing an international photography sensation.
During these years I was on the board of Canada's treatment advocacy NGO, the Canadian Treatment Action Council, and have been privileged to have worked with great activists internationally such as Africa.
Life is an evolution, and today I am now the owner/publisher of PositiveLite.com, an online project to bring people (and our allies) living with HIV together in Canada and abroad. The vision is to bring the world together with a uniquely Canadian perspective.I first went public in the 1980s, and with the exception of a few years of taking a break, have not really stopped.

More recently (relative to twenty years ago) in 2006 I was featured in the Ontario HIV Treatment Network's documentary "Positive Voices" filmed during the 2006 International AIDS Conference. 

The very same conference where I organized an action against the Conservative government for our Prime Minister not showing up, which is now known as "The Pillow Case Project" approximatel 1000 message-stenciled pillow cases were held up at the moment the government representative stood up causing an international photography sensation. 

During these years I was on the board of Canada's treatment advocacy NGO, the Canadian Treatment Action Council, and have been privileged to have worked with great activists internationally such as Africa. 

Life is an evolution, apart from my contributing to PositiveLite.com, I've become a budding stand-up comic creating a new genre of comedy: candid comedy. Look out as there isn't much I don't talk about. 

 

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