Advocacy: One HIV Awareness Day at a Time
There is a lot to be concerned about in living with HIV. Every day another headline details another issue people need to advocate behind or mobilize around. It’s the culture and history of HIV to hold people accountable to the declaration: "Nothing About Us, Without Us" and make sure we fight for our quality of life to be prioritized.
To add to that momentum, another awareness day has been added to the recognized awareness days for HIV/AIDS, focusing on specific communities, strategies for prevention, and honoring the lives lost and living with HIV. Now, February 28 is designated to address the issue of criminalizing people for their HIV status as HIV Is Not A Crime Awareness Day.
How it started
I came into HIV policy advocacy in 2015. This is the year of my awakening with respect to the quote, "You care about HIV criminalization; you just don’t know it yet." That resonated strongly with me when I saw this image on a slide deck presentation from the Sero Project.
It was posted under an image of Kerry Thomas, a man living with HIV in Idaho that was virally suppressed, used a condom, and didn’t transmit HIV to his partners but was charged with criminal HIV exposure in 1991 and again in 1996. Having been diagnosed in 2003, this was the first I was hearing about the laws, and how they were being enforced blew my mind.
I was invited to attend the 2nd HIV Is Not A Crime Training Academy in Huntsville, AL, in 2016. It was at this conference I decided to submit my very first abstract and co-present with an outstanding advocate Olivia G. Ford.
The presentation was an interactive training that challenged participants to "agree" or "disagree" with a set of statements that were read to them. These statements are structured to get individuals to understand why they believe what they believe and to own that belief.
Learning about HIV criminalization
It is often observed that people enjoy debating on social media and in other settings, which is a healthy analysis tool to understand information; however, it can be problematic when folks are not willing to respect others’ viewpoints or admit they may need to shift their own, especially when there is a lack of understanding of where their strong beliefs come from. An example of a statement read is, "Removing penalties for people living with HIV (PLHIV) who are virally suppressed is a successful approach in criminalization reform." This is not to be taken as true or false but to simply agree or disagree and then discuss why.
What happened the first time I did this exercise was there were PLHIV in that room that thought the laws were fine when they walked in the room, and when they left, they had a better understanding of the nuances of how criminalization legislation is structured and that people impacted by the legislation need to be the voices that inform how the laws change.
Bringing awareness to HIV criminalization history
I left that conference committed to wanting to bring more awareness to the discussion. I recognized that there was a healing component that needed to take place, and I saw that language used in most communities needed to be adjusted for all to feel connected to leaning into the movement for change.
I joined advocates in my state in forming the FL HIV Justice Coalition to focus on our state legislation and build strategy, and from there began to work closely with The Sero Project in various other programs to help educate and support communities of PLHIV. I came on full-time as the Southern Engagement Coordinator, and it was then that I wanted to revisit what resistance in the community looked like, so I fine-tuned the presentation I offered and began offering it more in the community.
When I heard President Joe Biden include HIV Criminalization as an issue in his 2021 World AIDS Day speech, I knew the moment was here to structure an awareness day. Sero had joined in collaboration with the Health Not Prisons Collective funded by Gilead Sciences in partnership with The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.
Realizing their HIV Is Not A Crime campaign and Sero’s campaign carried messaging to an expanded community, I made a proposal that we joined in launching HIV Is Not A Crime Awareness Day. The date was not chosen at random as it serves a legacy purpose and a deeper community representation purpose. Elizabeth Taylor’s birthday is February 27th, and it felt right in our partnership to honor her legacy in a way that highlighted how her work has helped many communities.
Significance of February 28th
The actual date of February 28 is significant in that it sits at the end of National Black History Month, which houses National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day and bridges to National Women’s History Month and National Women & Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
Black Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, 40 percent of PLHIV, and 33 percent of people incarcerated in jails and prisons. HIV criminalization laws put women disproportionately at an increased rate of intimate partner violence in the role of dating, disclosure, and coercion to stay in unhealthy and violent relationships.1-2
Holding space for marginalized communities
HIV Is Not a Crime Awareness Day is positioned in those months that hold space for some of the marginalized communities impacted by the outdated and unjust laws, but also know that the same communities most susceptible to acquiring HIV are the same populations that are most likely to be impacted by HIV criminalization.
Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, especially those who are also women, gay and bisexual men, people of trans experience, people who use drugs, sex workers, and immigrants are all vulnerable to the over-policing of their bodies and these laws exist in approximately 30 states of our nation. Even in states where there are no specific laws, other enforcement can be applied for PLHIV.1-2
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