By Naimah Oneal, Regional Co-Chair, PWN-USA-Ohio
My name is Naimah Oneal; I am a mother, grandmother, auntie and lastly I am a woman living with HIV. I must say that I am truly living with HIV by living my life. I went back to school after my husband died and became a licensed social worker with my Master’s degree in Social Work. I feel that I am a strong woman who understands that discussing one’s HIV status is important, but I have a problem with this nation’s and particularly Ohio’s laws has they relate to HIV criminalization.
People are being imprisoned for decades, and in many cases have to register as sex offenders, as a consequence of exaggerated fears about HIV. Most of these cases involve consensual sex or conduct such as spitting and biting that has only a remote, if any, possibility of HIV exposure. A man with HIV in Texas is serving 35 years for spitting at a police officer; a woman with HIV in Georgia received an eight-year sentence for failing to disclose her HIV status, despite the trial testimony of two witnesses that her sexual partner was aware of her HIV-positive status; a man with HIV in Michigan was charged under the state’s anti-terrorism statute with possession of a “biological weapon” after he allegedly bit his neighbor; and most recently, in Ohio, a women is being charged with felonious assault for having sex with a partner.
My concerns are as follows:
First: In the US and the world, women have a hard time negotiating their sex lives. Whether you are single, married or a sex worker, women are being abused and are often the receivers of violence at the hands of their partner. When a woman is also living with HIV, it just adds a layer of potential for women to further be abused. Recently, a woman in Texas was murdered for being HIV positive. As a side note: no one should ever be killed for being HIV positive.
The virus has been around for the past 30-plus years; no longer are people dying at anywhere near the rates they once were. Further, large studies have shown that if a person living with HIV is on treatment, their chance of transmitting HIV is practically zero.
Second: HIV is not a crime. The current laws are not about transmission, but about demonizing people for having the virus and making people who don’t know their status victims. If you’ve never been tested then how can you know you’re not living with HIV? People living with HIV, including myself, live in fear of a system that at any minute could charge us with a crime, for simply having HIV.
I believe that there are also people who are having unprotected sex — putting themselves and others at risk for STIs, including HIV — but will never get tested because of most states having HIV related laws dating back to the 1980s, not base in today’s vast knowledge. As long as they have never been tested and don’t know their HIV status, then they can’t be charged with a crime. When the world lives in fear of a virus that can only be seen with a microscope, only the virus is wins: HIV IS NOT A CRIME.
Third: The media needs to take responsibility for offering correct information to assist in ultimately reducing the community viral load (a measure based on the level of HIV in a population as opposed to just one person’s body). I feel that everyone has a role when it comes to ending HIV in my lifetime. The media is in a position to help create an environment and tools for people to be able to disclose their HIV status without fear. As in the recent news report out of Columbus, the stories presented are often so one-sided, putting the weight of sexual responsibility on the person that knows their status when it is two people that are having sex. People should be discussing and asking about their sex partners’ sexual history with language that asks direct questions to obtain direct answers. Asking someone if they are “clean” is not a direct question. If I have just had a shower then I am clean. “Clean from what?” would be my question. Teaching people correct information should be one of the media’s goals, and can be an important part of media outlets helping to reduce the community viral load.
Last: I feel that most states that have HIV criminalization laws should change the language to be rooted in the current science, not the fears of the past. All people have a right to not live in fear of a community that is misguided, misinformed, and hell-bent on finding someone to blame for this virus. People like Elisha Henson, an HIV-positive woman from Texas, should not ever have been murdered. HIV IS NOT A CRIME.
Naimah Oneal is a Regional Co-Chair of PWN-USA-Ohio.