Light for Rights
I worry that those close to me who are engaged in high risk behavior won’t get support or testing. I’m worried that I’ll end up in jail…..”
To mark the beginning of World AIDS Awareness Week and the approach of World AIDS Day on December the 1st, The Canadian AIDS Society (CAS) hosted ‘Light For Rights’ at the Human Rights Monument in downtown Ottawa on November the 24th.
Representatives from the Gatineau and Ottawa-area included the Bureau Régional D’action Sida, Bruce House, the AIDS Committee of Ottawa, Sandy Hill Community Health Centre, and the African and Caribbean Health Network, as well as CAS, and the Canadian Association for HIV Research. Speakers from each agency addressed different Human Rights violations impacting HIV+ people in our community, and I was asked to speak about HIV-criminalization. Below is an excerpt from my speech
“It’s difficult to stand up and speak about HIV Criminalization because whatever I have to say, it will not be enough. We are here, united on World AIDS Awareness Week, but divided on this issue. An issue that provokes emotional reactions, that digs up our racist and oppressive learned behavior, that challenges us on our privilege and our entitlement, our internalized homophobia and the lateral damage that we inflict on each other, this issue provokes cries of morality, public safety at the expense of other people's Human rights. Some people here will want the Police to be their condom.
You might hear that this issue is too political, too controversial and divisive, that if you are working at a community organization, that supporting it could impact your funding. If your organization doesn't have a position statement against the Criminalization of HIV transmission, then I challenge you today: If you don't do the work, you don't deserve the funding.
I could stand here reading from my paper and list off all the reasons why HIV criminalization is bad for our public health. I can tell you the law doesn’t stop HIV transmission, therefore it’s an ineffective law. I can tell you the law is applied selectively, and unfairly. I can tell you having consensual sex doesn’t make you a registered sex-offender. What I will tell you is HIV stigma and discrimination is disgusting; and it’s rampant.
I’ve been HIV+ for over 6 years and I have been called ‘dirty’, ‘promiscuous’, and a host of other ‘insults’, but now I’m starting to hear some new ones: like ‘criminal’ and ‘murderer’. In response to that, I’d like to repeat what I heard one of my poz hero’s David Hoe say at the first rally against HIV Criminalization on Parliament Hill two years ago. “Does my HIV look like it’s murdering me?”
The truth is I’m not worried that my HIV is going to kill me. I’m not worried about my quality of life because I have a disease named HIV. I’m worried about my quality of life because of what that now means when it comes to accessing support that ensures my longevity.
It’s negotiating my health I’m worried about. I’m worried about what happens when I can’t trust Public Health, my Doctor, my AIDS Service Organization in supporting my issues around disclosure because of a very real fear of criminalization and how they document me?
I’m worried about what happens to me as an HIV activist and educator if I can’t speak freely about my experiences? I worry that those close to me who are engaged in high risk behavior won’t get support or testing. I’m worried that I’ll end up in jail…..”
One week later, the AIDS Committee of Ottawa hosted a second event at the Human Rights Monument to bookend World AIDS Awareness Week with the help of the Youth Services Bureau. This time, not only did I speak, but I hosted as well. Once again, the subject was the Human Rights Violation that is HIV-criminalization.
“As I was sitting down at my desk, staring at my computer screen, typing this speech, and my opening remarks, contemplating what it was exactly that I wanted to communicate, I heard about Steve Biron in an e-mail. I read about his charges, saw his name and picture published in the paper, his HIV-status disclosed, the call by Quebec Police to contact them if you had EVER had sexual contact with the accused, and it broke my heart. It broke my heart because I saw history repeated. It broke my heart because I know that man will receive no support around his HIV status in jail. It broke my heart because as an HIV+ man, I had to read and hear comments by people on Facebook, and in the comment section of the Quebec Journal, that this man was a quote ‘a murderer’, that having sex without disclosing is ‘like rape’, that HIV+ guys should have to get ‘branded’ so that other people are made aware of other people’s status, that ‘responsibility is always with the HIV+ person’. None of these things are true. Almost all of them came from gay identified men. My community.
I often talk to queer men about HIV-stigma and discrimination, and the conversation lapses immediately into a question of morality. Morality is relative. Discussing it is narcissistic. What I will discuss is the evidence and the science behind why HIV-criminalization of HIV non-disclosure is bad public health policy. Let’s start with one important fact. Criminalizing of HIV non-disclosure cannot be justified because it does not prevention HIV transmission. In fact, criminalization of HIV-non-disclosure undermines prevention efforts and endangers our public health. That makes laws supporting HIV criminalization a danger to our public health. Our health, which is a basic human right! Rights which include our right to privacy, our right to be innocent until proven guilty, rights that are being violated!”
To get involved in the fight against HIV-criminalization, join the Ontario Working Group On Criminal Law and HIV Exposure at www.ontarioaidsnetwork.on.ca/clhe and sign the petition demanding guidelines for prosecutors based on science, not fear and prejudice.