Z e t e o
Reading, Looking, Listening, . . . Questioning

Criminalizing HIV

Categories: Drew Whitcup, ZiR

Michael Johnson cc_imgYesterday was World AIDS day, which is how I found myself reading an article from earlier this year. Writing for The Nation, Rod McCullom tackled the sad and informative case of Michael Johnson, former college student and wrestler from Missouri. Johnson was prosecuted under Missouri’s “HIV criminalization statute,” a law that punished those who have sex without disclosing that they are HIV+:

Missouri is one of at least 32 states and two territories that criminalize exposure or transmission of HIV, according to the Center for HIV Law and Policy. Some laws penalize having sex even after revealing serostatus to a partner—and regardless if a condom was used. The United States has led the world with ‘thousands’ of such prosecutions, according to the United Nations-backed Global Commission on HIV and the Law.

Most of these laws were enacted at the height of the epidemic in the 1980s and early 1990s—before life-saving antiretrovirals were introduced—and as such they do not reflect modern science, which has made an HIV diagnosis a chronic but manageable condition. For example: The goal of aggressive antiretroviral therapy is to suppress a viral load—the amount of HIV in a sample of blood—to become “undetectable.” Once a positive person has achieved viral suppression, that person is extremely unlikely to transmit HIV to a sex partner. But criminalization laws do not take this into account.

Johnson is black, and he is gay. He was charged with and convicted of meeting a number of men on social media “hookup” apps and engaging in sex without using a condom. One of these men did, in fact, contract HIV. For this, Johnson has been sentenced to 30 years in prison. The bias in his prosecution and conviction is impossible to ignore:

Everything about these interactions seems to have been racialized. Johnson had the physique to match his college-jock status, and his muscular and ripped frame appears to have been a hit on gay social media. He used the nickname “Tiger Mandingo” and reportedly four of the six accusers are white gay men. Once the case broke into the news, the same body that had been revered for its athletic and sexual prowess was instead the subject of racial caricature across the Internet. “Overtly racist blogs, like Chimpmania.com, labeled him an ‘HIV Positive Buck’,” wrote Buzzfeed’s Steven Thrasher in his July 2014 investigation, “How College Wrestling Star ‘Tiger Mandingo’ Became an HIV Scapegoat.”

“The dominant media narrative presented him as a monster,” says Charles Stephens, an Atlanta-based writer, activist and executive director of the Counter Narrative Project, which amplifies the voices of black gay men . . . ” A black man who is muscular and attractive is accused of not disclosing his status to mostly white accusers. The trial is being heard by an almost entirely white jury. The constant repetition of the name “Tiger Mandingo.” It is a deliberate strategy to say, “This is a brutal black man who did this intentionally to these precious, young, white accusers.”

The progress that has been made in understanding and controlling the HIV virus over the past 30+ years is remarkable. Less remarkable is the progress made in removing the stigma attached to the virus. Draconian laws applied disproportionately to black men certainly do nothing to help.

— Drew Whitcup, Zeteo Contributing Writer

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