National, International Advocates Converge In Iowa To Battle HIV Criminalization

By Todd Heywood

GRINNELL, IOWA - Nearly 200 advocates interested in the growing battle against criminalizing people living with HIV converged on this small college town last week to begin the process of forming a national movement.

Michigan is a leader in prosecuting people with HIV. HIV criminalization is broadly defined as prosecuting people, or subjecting them to greater sentences, because of their HIV-positive status. Michigan has seen cases involving its disclosure law, bioterrorism cases and, in one instance, a situation where a woman was issued a marijuana possession ticket because she failed to disclose her HIV status to police officer in Dearborn - despite not being legally obligated to do so.

Sero Project, a national organization fighting HIV criminalization, put the HIV is not a crime conference together. Sero is run by Sean Strub, founding publisher of POZ Magazine, and longtime HIV activist.

"The Grinnell Gathering was important because it was the first national conference specifically addressing HIV criminalization and because it was one of the largest national gatherings, in recent years, of people with HIV engaged in advocacy," said Strub. "It also was important because the attendees more closely reflected the epidemic than most conferences and because the conference, for many, marked the rejuvenation of the people with HIV empowerment movement. Those attending the conference left inspired, refreshed and with a renewed commitment to fight for change; one only needs to look at some of the FB comments to see what those who participated are saying and how much it meant to them."

Attendees were involved in developing talking points related to HIV criminalization, learning how to work social media to drive conversations and agendas, and learned the political processes related to lobbying for legislation on the state and national levels.

Iowa was front and center in the discussions and events during the conference. The previous week, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad signed the nation's first modernization law for an HIV specific law. Before the new legislation was signed into law, any person living with HIV accused of engaging in sexual activity without disclosing his or her HIV status could face up to 25 years in prison and 10 or more years on the state's sex offender registry.

The modernization legislation passed both houses of the Iowa legislature with unanimous support. The law now requires prosecutors prove an intent to transmit specific diseases, including HIV, hepatitis and TB; and allows defendants to mitigate allegations by showing they took action to reduce the potential risk of transmission by following medical advice. In addition, the law also removed the requirement that those convicted under the law be listed on the state's sex offender list. That provision was also back dated, removing those who had been convicted previously to be removed from the list, effective July 1.

In celebration of the new law, two men convicted under the old law - Donald Bogardus and Nick Rhoades - had their court ordered GPS bracelets cut off with large pruning shears by state Sen. Matt McCoy. McCoy led the battle to modernize Iowa's law in the legislature.

The conference was also important for the larger international movement to address HIV criminalization, says Edwin Bernard, who runs the HIV Justice Program monitoring HIV criminalization across the world.

"From an international perspective, it's very important," Bernard said. "HIV criminalisation is an international phenomenon but unfortunately the United States leads the world in terms of the sheer number of poorly drafted, unscientific HIV-specific criminal laws that result in so many unjust and unwarranted prosecutions, not only for potential or perceived sexual exposure but also for biting and spitting, and for soliciting for sex whilst HIV-positive. The most worrying trend today in HIV criminalisation is taking place in sub-Sarahan Africa. On this sub-continent, around 30 different countries have passed new vague and overly broad HIV criminal laws since 2001. Many of these problematic laws are based on a 'model law' funded and promoted by USAID - the US Agency for International Development, whose strapline is: 'from the American people.' So what happens in the United States affects the rest of the world, too. I'm hopeful that African law and policymakers, and people living with HIV and their allies, will be able to use the US movement to address these laws as leverage to repeal or modernize these unjust and harmful HIV laws in Africa (and elsewhere)."

Michigan was well represented at the conference. Jon Hoadley, who is running as a Democrat for a state representative post in Kalamazoo, was in attendance and is helping to coordinate a coalition to modernize Michigan's law.

"Michigan is engaging in cutting edge advocacy on HIV criminalization reform, and I was proud to be a first in the country conference to learn from success in other states," Hoadley said. He noted Michigan will face unique challenges in addressing its laws, but is confident Michigan can join Iowa in reforming its HIV law.

Laurel Sprague, a professor at Eastern Michigan University and a staffer at Sero Project, was also in attendance. She said the conference was particularly successful because it had brought together a truly diverse group of persons representing those most impacted by the HIV epidemic in the US - women, people of color, transwomen and others.

" The Grinnell Gathering created space for leaders within communities of women, poor people, and people of color - all living with HIV - to join together to hear each other's experiences and build shared understandings and approaches to fight unjust criminal laws and the fear-based and intolerant attitudes that undergird those laws," Sprague said.

For Kevin Geirman, who works for a Grand Rapids AIDS service organization, the conference was important, and challenging.

"On a personal note, I'm still unraveling the ways I was challenged and how I can implement movement in my immediate community," he said. "My heart was stirred by the personal stories that I was privileged to share and I'm inspired to both identify more stories to add to the collective as well as recognize opportunities to create a platform from which these stories can be heard."


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