Michigan’s HIV Criminalization Tour

The Counter Narrative Project-sponsored affiliate Black Bear Brotherhood (BBB), funded by a Michigan state health department grant awarded LGBT Detroit, is going on a six-city, statewide tour of Michigan to talk to black gay men about sex, and love, and marriage…oh, and HIV. Well, HIV criminalization to be precise.

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HIV criminalization.

Most people don’t know what that phrase means, though it comes ready equipped with context clues. For those who live with HIV, the phrase suggests that they have also somehow, due to no fault of their own, been made outlaws by the mere acquisition of a highly communicable disease. Being placed in the crosshairs of the law on top of the everyday stigma and opportunistic indignities that already accompanies the unwanted ailment. For some that do know the phrase’s meaning, both those with and without HIV, the retrograde policies suggests a vaguely righteous justice, a righting of the communal scales to punish those who have been willful or reckless upon learning of their new status, those assumed to be an intentional danger to what is assumed are those with otherwise perfect health. Which may all sound well and good until the person living with a disease is involved in a relationship with someone who’s acutely hurt over a break-up or even an ordinary slight that must be (over)corrected by escalating the matter into the loss of freedom told through a retaliatory lie about “disclosure.” Or, it’s used as an ever-looming threat to keep one caged in a relationship of emotional, physical, or even sexual abuse. So many ways to abuse a law based on the simple word of those without HIV. So much is assumed in a black and white society about the virtue of the person living with HIV and the person without, the so-called perpetrator and the victim, so much that often—not always, but often—proves to be more…complicated.

For every headlined “menace” that may be locked away under the auspices of being “a willful danger to the community” by “intentionally” spreading a disease that any of his or her “victims” could largely sidestep by choosing to use barrier methods such as condoms or taking the HIV prevention pill colloquially known as PrEP (you know, by exercising the same personal agency and sexual responsibility communally demanded of those living with the virus), several more are locked away under felony crimes for the most ordinary and every day of behaviors: sexual outer or intercourse without any unnatural barriers between the flesh. Or, worse, the all-too-human crime of wanting to be loved or simply touched without rejection or the recoil, pity, or shame that sometimes accompanies disclosure. Doesn’t matter if that man or woman technically cannot transmit HIV because of their viral suppression, a suppression achieved by “responsible” medical compliance, or even if they used that thoughtful condom as a means of mutual protection (after all, what bugs and viruses might the other person have, undisclosed, that could be even deadlier for the person living with a compromised immune system?). The law in some 20+ states, in varying degrees, demands that someone tell their status and not just verbally over drinks and a meal, on an evening drive or stroll together, or even between the sheets. No. But, to tell in a way that can be verified by law through documents and/or witnesses to the disclosure, an easily shareable text or document or a third-party audience to the person’s private medical matters (apparently confidentiality too is lost through disease). You know, the way these things are never actually done in real life with a disease still associated with becoming that outlaw, that pariah, that dark shape in the law’s crosshairs that is suddenly you. Oh, and, as one with the bullseye firmly affixed on you, be sure not to cough or spit or bleed in any way on anyone, particularly law enforcement, never mind that HIV is a bloodborne illness requiring blood to touch blood (or more accurately blood products). Under the law’s eye, you tried it, and several years freedom and a permanent felony record is the cost.

After years of being equally retrograde, Michigan in 2019 has decided to do something different. To actually consider the science and responsibility, to a point, and “intentions.” After years of work by the Michigan Coalition for HIV Health and Safety and modernization reforms successfully proposed by State Representative Jon Hoadley, who represents MI’s 6th District, the state under new Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer brought its HIV criminalization laws in 2019 more in line with the latest in HIV scientific findings. To actually consider a person’s viral suppression level, intentions, and actual transmittable behaviors while reducing or eliminating penalties for what used to be an automatic four years and a felony record. The new law puts a cap at four years for a felony charge of “willfully or intentionally transmitting or attempting to transmit HIV to someone else,” though the reforms do not go so far as to consider the ways folks actually disclose to one another their status or what happens when someone believes themselves to be suppressed in-between doctor’s visits and later learns they aren’t or potentially weren’t in the ensuing months. Clearly, it’s not a perfect law; there aren’t much of those these days for anyone. However, it’s a start that will, theoretically, keep less queer black and brown bodies out of those crosshairs, those bodies who have largely been incarcerated under HIV criminalization laws since these laws first passed decades ago.

So, on the road LGBT Detroit and BBB goes, funded and sanctioned by the state. Following a full-house in May with its “Love, Dating, and Marriage: In Times of HIV, PrEP, and Criminalization” BGM forum in Detroit, the collaboration is going to spread the word to MI’s black gay men with a retooled and more racy titled tour event, “Sex, Hook Ups, and The Apps” to help better secure butts in seats. Brothers in Flint, Lansing, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Ypsilanti, and again in Detroit from Sept. 11th- Sept. 15th and on October 18th, will not only be informed about the reforms and how to apply them to their daily, but asked to really consider, intergenerationally, what has been the impact of so much change surrounding their sex, sexuality, and relationships over the last seven years. Those whiplash inducing years have included the advent of PrEP, a new understanding of sero-discordant relationships through research findings (e.g., U = U), marriage equality, and the enduring specter of HIV criminalization that still haunts every interaction in a community where one out of every two men is predicted to get HIV in his lifetime. The tour hopes to act as a breather, a pause, to really absorb what it all means now and for the future of our relationships and freedoms, but legal and sexual. It’s a revolutionary tour in many ways, for the state to support BGM in educating those around the state, those most affected by changes in a law, on purpose and to invite those black gay men to consider its meaning on their personal, sexual, and cultural lives. Though it’s never been stated, our team’s hope is that, as goes Michigan, so goes the nation. Or, at least, a nation of black gay men living with HIV, in state after state still living under his, the law’s, eye.