HIV Criminalization And Marriage Equality
Posted 3/5/2012 12:30:00 PM
By Alex Garner

It would appear that marriage equality and HIV criminalization have very little in common. In most cases they do, but not anymore thanks to the great state of Maryland. The Maryland governor just signed marriage equality into law and the same legislature that produced the marriage equality bill, may now be considering legislation that would change HIV non-disclosure from a misdemeanor to a 25-year felony. Could this state champion marriage equality while simultaneously criminalizing and stigmatizing HIV positive people?

It seems unlikely that this piece of legislation will make it to the governor’s desk but its proposal demonstrates the fear and ignorance that still exist today. These sorts of laws will not prevent HIV infections and would only deter people from getting tested or seeking treatment. It’s bad for public health and it’s bad for social justice.

So why isn’t a similar amount of energy and money going into defeating laws against HIV positive people as is going into laws for marriage equality? Surely it can’t be a question of urgency. I am not aware of people currently serving long prison sentences for requesting a marriage license. Gays who try to marry are not labeled as sex offenders for such an act.

So what’s the catch? Is it simply a matter of optics? A picture of two lesbians tying the knot evokes much more sympathy then that of a gay man arrested for not disclosing his HIV status. But that’s not good enough. It simply means we may have to work harder to demonstrate that injustice is occurring.

Our community has a rich history of success with fights that are unattractive or uncomfortable so why is it largely absent now? Do the rights of HIV positive people rank that low on the list? Could I be wrong and could marriage equality and HIV criminalization be more connected than I thought? If we are fighting for the right to be married and have legally recognized loving and committed relationships, the specter of the disease-spreading homosexual could be a threat to those political endeavors.

Civil rights are not a scarce resource. Our LGBT community should be just as concerned for equal protection under the law when it comes to a marriage contract as it does when one is HIV positive. It’s time for our national and local organizations to step up and join the fight. We’ve seen how successful we can be when we work together, let’s put an equal amount of effort into social justice for those with HIV. 

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Posted By: Positive Frontiers  

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  1. Matthew Weait posted on 03/05/2012 02:24 PM
    Thank you for this Alex - an insightful intervention. The move towards greater criminalization of PLHIV in the US is, I think, a symptom of a number of things. Principal among these is a retrenchment from the liberation politics of the '60s and '70s. The move towards marriage equality for same sex couples can be read in two ways. One, as a logical move in LGBT politics (de-criminalization of homosexuality, equalization of the age of consent, the anti-discrimination measures in employment and so on are - if you like - a prequel to civil equality in marriage). This is a story we often tell ourselves, and it is a good story with a potentially happy ending. It makes sense, seen through the "optic" (I like your term) of progressive politics and rights. Another version (advanced by many feminist and queer theorists) is that same sex marriage rights are, ultimately conservative and reactionary. Our own Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, has said he is in favour of same sex marriage (and aroused the wrath of our Roman Catholic clergy) BECAUSE he is a conservative (not despite the fact that he is one). In this narrative, marriage rights serve to reinforce stable, traditional values - not to disrupt them. So, it seems to me that there is - as you say - a connection. Non-disclosure is a breach of the trust which is fundamental to the "vows" which underpin marriage, and its expectations of honesty and fidelity. Making non-disclosure a felony is completely in line with attempts to bring same sex couples into the heteronormative fold. "You want these rights, well this is what these rights entail buster" (or something like that). There is much more to be said on this, and I look forward to the debate that your comments will - I hope - provoke.
  2. ClaudeW posted on 03/05/2012 06:46 PM
    "If we are fighting for the right to be married and have legally recognized loving and committed relationships, the specter of the disease-spreading homosexual could be a threat to those political endeavors." That is the crux of the issue.

    I applaud you for starting this important conversation. It is time the LGBT movement takes up this important issue - but first we have to reach consensus. I hope you are open to different points of view. Although in the end, I do think these laws need to be at least radically changed (a 25 year felony is crazy, they should at least allow for an exception if condoms are used like here in CA) I do not yet believe there is support for repeal of ALL laws against disclosure, especially if there was intent to do harm. This is different than advocating for laws against discrimination against people with HIV or for advocating for funds for life saving treatment or prevention. This is advocating for what many consider at best, irresponsible behavior, even if it is on a human level understandable, because very few of us, positive or negative, have a perfect record in this area. At a time when more and more people are beginning to support marriage equality, you are asking the LGBT movement to risk some of that support by seeming to endorse what most straight people (including many of our most vociferous supporters) and even many gay people think of as reckless behavior. That is asking a lot. Let's at least be honest about what's at stake.
  3. Hrag posted on 03/09/2012 06:59 PM
    I'm not sure I understand if you think there should be no repercussions for people who knowingly transmit HIV. Do you think a misdemeanor suffices?
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