Commentary: Stop Locking Up Black Men for HIV

Commentary: Stop Locking Up Black Men for HIV

Michael Johnson has been charged with recklessly infecting someone with HIV.

Published May 12, 2015

In January 2013, two male college students, one white and one Black, connected on a gay mobile hookup app and later had unprotected sexual intercourse.

Months later, after their second hookup, the Black student, Michael Johnson, disclosed that he was HIV positive. After his disclosure, Johnson was arrested and charged with one count of "recklessly infecting another with HIV" and four counts of "attempting to recklessly infect another with HIV."

Johnson, a well-built college wrestler, was known in some circles by the name "Tiger Mandingo" and the announcement of his arrest sparked widespread controversy and condemnation of his actions. This week, nearly two years after his arrest, Johnson's trial began in St. Charles, Missouri.

It's a trial that should never have happened.

Criminal laws in at least 35 states punish HIV-positive people for exposing others to the virus, even if the person takes precautions such as using a condom. This is a cause for great concern, not for celebration. Although these laws may appear to be reasonable measures to discourage HIV transmission, they don't work.

The sad truth is that HIV transmission laws do not reduce the spread of HIV. "There are no data demonstrating that the threat of criminal sanctions significantly changes or deters the complex sexual and drug-using behaviours which may result in HIV transmission," according to the Joint United Nations Programme on AIDS.

What the laws do accomplish is to worsen the AIDS epidemic by stigmatizing those who are HIV positive and discouraging testing. If someone is required to reveal his HIV status to his sexual partners if he tests positive, we create an incentive for him not to be tested. Ignorance of your HIV status is rewarded, contrary to decades of public health campaigns encouraging people to be tested.

These laws also often unfairly target Black men. From Nushawn Williams in 1997 to Nikko Briteramos in 2002 to Michael Johnson today, most of the high-profile cases have targeted African-American men. It continues a pattern from the past three decades in which our country has been locking up thousands of Black men for nonviolent drug offenses and other low-level crimes. Do we really need to put more Black men in prison?

These laws also discourage self-protection by providing a false sense of security for those who assume, wrongly, that potential legal consequences will encourage honesty from their sexual partners. Just last Friday, more than 100 Black gay men signed onto an open letter that argues against HIV criminalization laws, in part, because they "burden people living with HIV to take on the sole responsibility of sexual encounters."

Sexual activity is a joint responsibility that requires joint accountability. It's 2015. The world has been living with the AIDS epidemic for more than 30 years. Anyone who knowingly engages in unprotected sexual intercourse in this era is taking a risk of exposure.

It doesn't matter that the partner "looks clean" or he "said he was negative," or if it was "only one time." If you have consensual unprotected sex with anyone and you are not 100 percent certain of their HIV status, you are putting your health at risk. Yes, you are doing that. Not just your sexual partner. You are taking a risk.

Of course, we should encourage people to be honest in their sexual encounters, but we should not forget that people often lie about sex, largely because of the way we stigmatize sexuality in America. People lie about their sexual history, their sexual abilities and their past conquests. Why is anyone surprised that people would lie about their HIV or STD status as well? Instead of making assumptions or blindly trusting sexual partners, we all need to protect ourselves.

That's why it's time to stop the blame game and time to start taking constructive actions to end the AIDS epidemic and provide resources for those who are living with the virus or the disease.

It's also time to stop stigmatizing those who are sexually active. Sex is a part of life. It is a wonderful, natural human desire. Instead of demonizing those who enjoy sex, we should devote our energy and resources to curing and ending sexually transmitted diseases.

Much of the credit around the recent campaign involving Michael Johnson goes to Charles Stephens, founder of The Counter Narrative Project, who developed the #FreeBlackGayMen hashtag to raise awareness about the destructive impact of HIV transmission laws. The campaign reminds us that HIV is not a crime. It is a public health emergency.

If we really want to stop the spread of HIV, we need more testing centers and research labs. Not more jail cells.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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Written by Keith Boykin

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