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Between The Bills’ Episode Five: The Criminalization of HIV/AIDS

“With HIV, we can prosecute it, or we can prevent it. You can’t do both.”

February 27, 2020

Emily Rose Thorne
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Vintage HIV/AIDS poster from by the CDC // Wikimedia

e’re back after a little winter hiatus, and we’re starting off 2020 with a topic that doesn’t get anywhere near the amount of attention that it should: the role of the legal system in the HIV/AIDS crisis.

I’m Emily Rose Thorne, a journalist from the Peach State, working to see the Southern United States represented in national conversations about advocacy.

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Since the initial HIV outbreak in the 1980s, the U.S. government has denied acknowledgement, funding, treatment, and prevention of the disease and wrote laws about what HIV-positive folks can and cannot do, specifically due to its association with the LGBTQ+ population.

Today, despite treatments that can seriously reduce the risk of transmission, these same policies remain intact. Discriminatory laws that criminalize HIV/AIDS are targeted attacks on the queer community, particularly transgender folks and men who have sex with men. This happens nationwide, but it’s most dramatic here in the Southeastern United States, where a lack of comprehensive sexual education, social conservatism, and increased poverty exacerbate other contributing factors.

In 2019, thirty-four states and two U.S. territories maintained anti-HIV statutes. HIV-specific criminal charges have been filed in the United States more than 1,500 times since the first HIV-specific laws were introduced in 1986 with approximately 411 arrests and prosecutions for HIV exposure between 2008–2019.

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Worldwide, UNAIDS estimates that people in prison are on average five times more likely to be living with HIV compared with adults who are not incarcerated.

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HIV criminalization is a nationwide crisis, but laws that penalize the HIV-positive population are most common and most destructive in the Southern United States.

For context, the South represents the highest regional prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the nation. The South only has 37% of the country’s population, but Southern states contribute half of HIV-positive Americans. All six states in which more than 15% of men who have sex with men live with HIV — the highest rate in the nation — are in the South. And of the 25 metropolitan statistical areas with the highest levels of men who have sex with men living with an HIV diagnosis, 21 were located in Southern states.

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We’ll also talk about the public health ramifications of criminalizing HIV/AIDS, racial disparities when it comes to diagnosis and treatment, and ways you can support efforts to control the epidemic in the Southeastern United States.

Grab your coffee, your tea, your mineral water — whatever floats your boat — and settle in for Episode Five of Between The Bills.

Hit that play button — let’s talk.

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// go deeper //

Sources used to inform Episode Five and resources to learn more about HIV/AIDS criminalization in Georgia and around the country…

// Academic and scholarly resources

HIV Criminalization in the United States: A Sourcebook on State and Federal HIV Criminal Law and Policies” — Kate Boulton, Pepis Rodriguez, Mayo Schreiber and Catherine Hanssens, Center for HIV Law and Policy (2017)

Systematic Review of HIV Transmission between Heterosexual Serodiscordant Couples Where the HIV-Positive Partner Is Fully Suppressed on Antiretroviral Therapy” — Mona Loutfy, Wei Wu, Michelle Metchumanan, Lise Bondy, Tony Antoniou, Shari Margolese, Yimeng Zhang, PLoS ONE (2013)

HIV/AIDS Epidemic in the South Reaches Crisis Proportions in Last Decade” — Susan Reif, Kathryn Whetten, Elena Wilson and Winston Gong, Southern HIV/AIDS Strategy Initiative (2011)

// Advocacy resources

“‘Abominable and Detestable Crimes against Nature’: An ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project Update on the Status of Sodomy Laws” — ACLU, 2019

HIV Criminalization” — American Academy of HIV Medicine (2019)

How HIV Impacts LGBTQ People” — Human Rights Campaign, 2017

LGBT in the South” — Christy Mallory, Andrew Floes and Brad Sears, Williams Institute/UCLA School of Law (2016)

SERO HIV Criminalization Fact Sheet” — The Sero Project (2019)

When Health Care Isn’t Caring: Lambda Legal’s Survey of Discrimination Against LGBT People and People with HIV” — Lambda Legal, 2010

// Books

Same Sex, Different Politics: Success and Failure in the Struggles over Gay Rights — Gary Mucciaroni, 2008

// Government resources

HIV Testing, Treatment, Prevention Not Reaching Enough Americans” —, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019)

Poverty Statistics for Southern States” — Southern Legislative Conference, Southern Office of The Council of State Governments (2018)

PrEP and HIV” — Planned Parenthood, 2019

Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program Legislation” — Health Resources & Services Administration, 2019

// News articles

Addressing Georgia’s HIV Epidemic in an Uncertain Political Climate” — Living Room (2018)

Despite High HIV Rates, Georgia Schools Ignoring LGBT Sex Ed” — Jim Burress, WABE/National Public Radio (2017)

STD Rates Reach Another Record High in Fulton, Elsewhere in U.S.” — Geoff Dempsey, Patch Media (2019)

It’s Time to Repeal HIV Criminalization Laws” — Perry Halkitis and Jennifer Pomeranz, HuffPost (2017)

3 Sexually Transmitted Diseases Hit New Highs Again in US” — Jenese Harris and Mike Stobbe, WJXT News4JAX (2019)

1 in 5 LGBTQ Americans Lives in Poverty — and Some Groups Are Particularly Worse Off” — Meera Jagannathan, MarketWatch (2019)

Sex Ed In Georgia Schools Still Abstinence-Heavy” — Sophie Peel, Georgia Public Broadcasting (2018)

New HIV Stats Cause Anxiety for Georgia’s LGBT Community” — Patrick Saunders, Georgia Voice (2018)

// Videos

HIV Criminalization: Masking Fear and Discrimination, Sero Project (2016)

Gay, black and HIV positive: America’s hidden epidemic, The Guardian (2018)

// Organizations & additional information

Someone Cares Atlanta

Georgia AIDS Coalition

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