Post by GLAD Senior Legal Assistant Joseph Wildey
GLAD recently provided assistance to a man charged with a serious crime—who spent over a month in jail as a result—simply because he is HIV-positive. Since then, I have been thinking about the necessity of education, particularly when it aims to dispel wholly unfounded beliefs.
In fifth grade, my teacher integrated health, fitness, and disease, including the sexually transmitted variety, into the curriculum. Classroom giggles aside, the lessons were informative; they taught me to maintain a cautious yet balanced perspective on prevention.
I remember learning that certain diseases were contagious, but not contagious like the common cold. A person needed to engage in more than just casual contact in order to transmit HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
And what about shaking hands, or sharing a drinking glass with someone who is HIV-positive? Those are both perfectly safe activities with no risk of transmission, I learned. I could even hug someone who was HIV-positive, and express affection through kissing, without fear of becoming infected.
Such instruction prepared me for a world outside of school where I would undoubtedly meet and interact with people who were HIV-positive. Rather than experiencing fear in such an instance, and expressing that fear through bias or discrimination, I would be informed and open-minded.
Unfortunately, when asked to agree or disagree with the statement, “HIV can be transmitted through saliva as a result of sharing a drinking glass with someone who is HIV-positive,” sixteen percent of Americans agreed, as shown in a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey.
Another thirty percent of those surveyed believed that kissing someone who is HIV-positive can also lead to infection.
Yet while the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has said conclusively that HIV cannot be transmitted via saliva, the public misconceptions surrounding HIV persist in the third decade of the epidemic.
These unfounded beliefs fuel pervasive stigma and discrimination in society, as demonstrated by continued criminal prosecutions of HIV-positive individuals.
This past summer, I provided assistance as GLAD successfully interceded in an HIV-related criminal prosecution in Connecticut. The incident involved a person from Massachusetts who was charged with serious felonies as a result of spitting on a law enforcement official during an arrest.
The inflated charges, which included assault on a police officer, assault with a deadly weapon, and criminal mischief, were solely based on the fact that the individual who spit on the official identified himself as being HIV-positive during the incident.
In this scenario, HIV transmission could not have occurred, as anyone privy to the lessons taught in my fifth grade classroom would have known.
The prosecutors viewed this person’s HIV, and the fact that he had spit on the officer, as assault with a deadly weapon, despite clear scientific evidence that saliva is not a mode of HIV transmission.
Fortunately, the charges were eventually reduced, but only after GLAD, while working with the person’s public defender, marshaled an array of medical experts and advocated with public officials in order to refute the charges and secure this person’s release.
Other HIV-positive individuals have not been as fortunate. Nationwide, criminal prosecutions for similar incidents where the risk of transmission is zero are astoundingly common.
In the United States, groups like The Center for HIV Law & Policy have compiled non-exhaustive lists of at least 118 prosecutions and arrests for HIV exposure between 2008 and 2011. Many of the cases listed involve nondisclosure of a person’s HIV-positive status during a sexual encounter; however, a sizeable number of prosecutions and arrests were the result of spitting or biting.
One of the more egregious prosecutions occurred in Texas in 2008, when an HIV-positive homeless man was sentenced to 35 years in prison as a result of spitting; his saliva was viewed as a deadly weapon in that case.
The continued prosecution of HIV-positive individuals can be linked to the fear and outright hostility that characterized the beginning of the epidemic. The residual effects of this stigma and discrimination still affect HIV-positive individuals, especially those interacting with the criminal justice system.
GLAD’s AIDS Law Project was founded in 1984, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and more than ten years before I learned the importance of choosing facts over fear. GLAD continues to educate people about misconceptions surrounding HIV-positive individuals and to ensure that policies are based on science.
However, as this experience in Connecticut illustrates, there is still much work to be done.