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Systemic stigma: Tennessee’s anti-HIV law enforcement


Jim Allen:

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--- Quote ---At least 154 people living with HIV have been placed on Tennessee’s sex offender registry and labelled as a “violent sexual offender” for charges stemming from their HIV-positive status, according to a report published by the Williams Institute at the University of California Los Angeles. Many of those impacted also had to serve time in prison.

There are alarming disparities by race, class, and geography in enforcement of two HIV-specific laws which are largely wielded against Black people and those living in Memphis.

Like most HIV criminalisation laws, Tennessee’s do not require actual HIV transmission, intent to transmit, or activities that pose a risk for transmission to be present. ‘Aggravated prostitution’ is a charge that elevates sex work from a misdemeanour to a felony because of a person’s HIV-positive status.

Black women are more often impacted by these charges, which nearly always stem from mere conversations with undercover police officers without physical contact. Often, law enforcement uses the aggravated prostitution charge to target transgender women engaging in survival sex to meet basic needs, according to a separate qualitative study by one of the report’s authors.

Tennessee’s other anti-HIV law is more often wielded against Black men. ‘Criminal exposure’ occurs when people living with HIV engage in certain activities without first disclosing their HIV status, including ‘intimate contact’, blood/tissue donation, and sharing injection equipment.

Tennessee places those convicted of an HIV crime on the sex offender registry which is a lifelong requirement for those convicted after 2010

Enforcement of anti-HIV laws in Tennessee disproportionately impacts Black people, the socioeconomically disadvantaged, and transgender women.

These laws do not require actual HIV transmission, intent to harm, or any activity that poses a risk for HIV transmission to occur. Despite this, those convicted in Tennessee face serious consequences impacting every facet of their life and lifelong involvement in the criminal justice system. From the qualitative study:

“We all deserve justice regardless of who we are or what we are going through. Having HIV, you get labeled as being a sex offender, which is crazy. You want to further drag me through the mud, and not just that, you want to put [my HIV status] out there for everybody to know.”

Enforcement of these laws does not promote justice; rather it amplifies pre-existing injustices. Advocates, including the current US President, urgently call for their repeal and/or modernisation..
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