This week, from June 2-5, the HIV is Not a Crime Conference took place in Grinnell College in Iowa. Advocates from across the country came together to brainstorm and share their perspectives and experiences in connection with HIV criminalization — the use of criminal law to prosecute and penalize people living with HIV for conduct that would be legal if they did not get tested or know their status.
Since many people, including members of the Positive Justice Project, a national campaign to end HIV criminalization, were not able to travel to Iowa for the conference, I want to share a snapshot of the conversations that took place among advocates and community members at the conference. The themes represented here are not exhaustive, but they form a powerful and inspiring platform for action, movement-building, and social change over the next year.
1 ) HIV Criminalization is Part of Broader Criminal Justice and Social Justice Struggles
Advocates expressed broad consensus that HIV criminalization laws are rooted in homophobia, racism, and other forms of social injustice, and that HIV-phobia is a proxy for homophobia, racism, and sexism. The laws provide police with additional ammunition to target and control people of color, LGBT folks, and immigrants.
Many advocates expressed deep frustration at the lack of racial justice, economic justice, and reproductive justice analysis in the HIV movement.
To fight HIV criminalization, advocates are eager to incorporate an intersectional lens that recognizes the connection between HIV criminalization and broader criminal justice issues, including the problem of overcriminalization across the United States, police profiling, and stop-and-frisk programs targeting people of color, immigrants, queer youth, and transgender people.
There was strong interest in pursuing strategies that place HIV criminalization laws within a broader context of police targeting, surveillance, and persecution of vulnerable individuals and marginalized communities, including people of color, LGBT folks, immigrants, and sex workers.
The unifying thread is the importance of ending the use of the criminal justice system to target, control, and contain members of our communities who are feared or disliked on the basis of stigmatized identity.
Advocates expressed that the failure to recognize these broader connections weakens and divides us — particularly, when we fail to incorporate the perspectives and experiences of marginalized people in our advocacy, outreach, collaborations and compromises.
2 ) HIV Criminalization Laws Undermine Public Health
Since HIV criminalization laws are, in large part, rooted in homophobia and stigma, advocates expressed a strong interest in using medical/scientific ( evidence-based ) and public health lenses to talk about HIV criminalization. This approach focuses on describing the actual routes, relative risks and consequences of transmission to our communities, policymakers, elected officials, and representatives. HIV is not a crime and should be addressed from a public health perspective.
3 ) Our Work, Outreach and Collaborations Should Reflect the Nuances and Diversity of our Vibrant Communities and Life Experiences
Since our communities and life experiences are diverse, advocates are eager to cast a broad and inclusive net. For example, although having LGBT support is important for advancing HIV campaigns, a constant theme in the conference was the need to make HIV criminalization more than just a "gay issue." Advocates stressed that we cannot forget about other communities.
To broaden the base of support, advocates suggest focusing on collaborations across communities and across social justice movements. Cross-pollination in an intersectional fashion is critical for success.
As advocates noted, to effectively carry out this work, it is important to understand HIV, race, economic justice, reproductive justice, immigration, and the prison industrial complex.
In light of the changing nature of identity-politics — folks now identify across movements and communities — instead of identity-based alliances, coalitions and messaging, it likely is more effective and powerful to use a values-based approach.
4 ) Tackling Tough Compromises Through Inclusion
Advocates expressed a strong interest in making well-informed decisions and compromises that recognize the diversity, varying needs, and nuances in our communities and lived experiences.
Even in Iowa, where advocates successfully pushed for change, there is more work to do to improve the HIV criminalization law. Advocates at the conference acknowledged that hard choices often have to be made in legislative campaigns. Some advocates noted that Iowa is instructive in looking at ways to organize and advocate, but Iowa is not a model law — difficult compromises were be made, and when the bill passed unanimously it made some advocates wonder whether too many compromises were made and too much was left at the table.
Advocates noted that every state is different. We need multiple legislative options and strategies that reflect the unique needs and dynamics of each state. Many recognized that there is no single path for HIV de-criminalization. Legislative campaigns and efforts all require compromises that reflect diverse state-specific needs. Our movement, goals, asks, and compromises must reflect our communities and diverse needs. But our anti-criminalization work and de-criminalization efforts should not end up criminalizing, marginalizing, or stigmatizing someone else.
When making compromises, we should consider: who is sitting at the table and participating in the conversation? Who is making these decisions, and who will be affected by them?
Advocates urged: nothing about us without us! Nothing about an affected community without representation from that community.
5 ) Collaboration and Coordination is Key for Collective Impact
The conference stressed a powerful and inspiring theme of interconnectedness. We are all one family of advocates working together to abolish the criminalization, discrimination, oppression, persecution, and dehumanization of people living with HIV, our families, and our communities.
Advocates expressed an interest in exploring meaningful collaborations grounded on mutual respect and based on commonalities and shared values.
Advocates are eager to coordinate work stream and align initiatives with friends, colleagues, and peers across the movement against HIV criminalization, across the broader HIV movement, and across other social justice movements. There was widespread recognition that we can complement each other's work for collective impact.
Looking for HIV Criminalization Resources?
In anticipation of this conference, The Center for HIV Law and Policy gathered a selection of HIV criminalization resources for advocates and organizations, including This is How We Win: A Toolkit for Community Advocates, and HIV criminalization palm cards in English and Spanish. We provide free, unlimited access to substantive resources to support and increase the advocacy power and expertise of attorneys, community members, service providers, and all people living with HIV.