We Need To Come Together To End These Discriminatory HIV Laws

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Laela and Naomi Wilding are sisters and granddaughters of the legendary actress and humanitarian Elizabeth Taylor. They are now ambassadors of The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and have pledged to do what they can to help those living with HIV and AIDS, and create an AIDS-free generation. To mark World AIDS Day on December 1, they've shared with Refinery29 the following piece on how we can help fight the stigma — and spread — of HIV and AIDS.

It might shock you to learn that at least 63 countries still have laws on the books that treat HIV as a crime, even in 2016. Perhaps what's even more shocking is that the only country that has prosecuted more people than the U.S. is Russia.

Much of the general population in the United States doesn't realize that we still have antiquated and discriminatory laws on the books that criminalize people living with HIV. Repealing these laws would have been a priority for our grandmother, Elizabeth Taylor, and we feel it is more important than ever to shine a light on these issues, especially given the new political climate we’re entering.

Many of these laws began in the early 1980s, when contracting HIV was thought of as “a death sentence.” Three decades later, this is no longer the case. Current HIV medication, when taken regularly, reduces viral load (the amount of HIV in your blood), making it almost impossible to transmit the virus. We also now have medications that can prevent HIV transmission — a daily pill called PrEP that some people have compared to the birth control pill, but for HIV prevention. Yet, the laws have not caught up with medical advances.

Most of the laws are about disclosure. They make it illegal for a person with HIV to knowingly expose anyone to the virus without disclosing their status. It doesn’t matter if the person has an undetectable viral load and/or uses a condom and no HIV transmission occurred, or even if risk of transmission existed. In some places, spitting or exposure to saliva can be prosecuted as a felony, even though we’ve long known that HIV can’t be transmitted through saliva.

This is a human rights issue. Lack of education and misinformation are being used as weapons of blatant discrimination.

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These laws increase stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV. They hinge on the disclosure requirement, which frequently comes down to “he said-she said,” with the HIV-positive person more often than not perceived as a villain, facing an assumption of guilt when in a courtroom.

To address this, The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation
is working with SERO Project, a network of people with HIV and allies fighting for freedom from stigma and injustice. The partnership has introduced us to some heartbreaking stories of people whose lives are ruined by these unjust laws. Kerry Thomas, an Idaho grandfather, is serving 30 years in prison for consensual sex where both parties agreed that he always insisted on using condoms. His medical records show he had an undetectable viral load and the virus was not passed to his partner, yet Kerry was convicted, anyway. And in Texas, Willie Campbell is serving 35 years in a prison for spitting, after the court classified the homeless man’s saliva as a “deadly weapon.”

This is a human rights issue. Lack of education and misinformation are being used as weapons of blatant discrimination. In fact, most of the laws are very vague, leaving too much to interpretation and potential discrimination. The phrase “take the test and risk arrest,” means that if you know your HIV status, you could run the risk of potential incarceration, creating a direct deterrent to HIV testing.

According to the CDC
, as of 2015, 92% of new infections occur from people who do not know their status or are not on treatment. If laws criminalizing HIV and stigma were gone, people might feel more at ease to disclose their status, whether at work or in an intimate or sexual relationship. As a result, more people would get tested and know their status, a change that could reduce the spread of new HIV infections.

Our grandmother’s heart would break to witness the continued stigma and lack of education around this issue.

Using updated scientific facts to educate the public can work. In Colorado, the state legislature recently voted to pass Senate Bill 146, repealing two HIV criminalization statutes and reforming others. “Most people really knew very little about this topic. Yet when presented with evidence, they quickly agreed these laws are anachronistic and are no longer based on current science and medicine,” Colorado Sen. Pat Steadman said of the success local advocates had in changing the outdated policy. Increased knowledge about reduced infectiousness of HIV has led to a number of jurisdictions revising or revisiting their criminal laws or prosecutorial policies.

Colorado is just the beginning. Even with its changes, there are still 32 states across the nation with HIV-related laws. A few weeks back, one of us visited with activists in Idaho who are working so hard to get their voices heard, but it can feel like an uphill battle without support.

Despite progress in understanding HIV, people living with the virus still regularly encounter stigma, stereotyping, and discrimination. On the federal level, one solution is The REPEAL HIV Discrimination Act, legislation that would help fight discrimination in civil and criminal law against people living with HIV. Rep. Barbara Lee reintroduced a new iteration of the REPEAL HIV Discrimination Act in March of last year.

The aim of the proposal, H.R.1586, is “to modernize laws, and eliminate discrimination, with respect to people living with HIV/AIDS, and for other purposes.”

Our grandmother’s work as an activist and advocate is inspiring. She had such visibility and used it so brilliantly to help raise awareness and ease the suffering of those with HIV. And while we don’t all have that same kind of visibility, if we all work to speak out about intolerance and do what we can to raise awareness, we become a movement. And that movement will become a force for change.

Our grandmother’s heart would break to witness the continued stigma and lack of education around this issue. We want all activists working toward this goal to know that they are not alone in this important effort.

We stand with them and know that many who read this will feel the same way, but won’t know how to help. Start by asking your representatives in Congress to co-sponsor the REPEAL HIV Discrimination Act of 2015 (H.R.1586 and S. 2336). A phone call to your representative will just take a few minutes of your timebut it can go a long way.

Get educated and get involved. Let our voices be heard.
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