On September 11th 2013, news media outlet WBNS-10TV in Columbus, Ohio, carried a story about a local man who has been charged with “Allegedly Not Notifying Partner of HIV Status”. While the story makes its way round other news outlets, there has been no court hearing as yet, no conviction has been made and all the information provided about the case by WBNS-10TV is the personal testimony of the man’s aggrieved ex-girlfriend, along side that of an investigating police officer. Ohio law states that an HIV positive person must disclose their status to a partner before engaging in sex. As it stands now, this case amounts to her word against his. The individual who has been charged must now come to terms with the fact that his face and full name have been distributed all over the news media. Now branded as an “AIDS monster” his life is certain to be ruined. That will remain so, whether in fact he abided by Ohio law or not. Serious questions are therefore raised about the responsibility of the news media in publishing stories which destroy people’s lives, without proof of guilt.
Of course the irresponsibility of the news media in placing their story-selling potential high above any concern for individual human beings is no news to anyone. But does that mean that they should continue unchallenged? In an era when transcontinental news media corporations, such as Rupert Murdoch’s News International, are being hung out to dry over their gross misconduct and savage disdain for the subjects of their stories, is now the time for a wider campaign to hold news media outlets to account?
Perhaps though, what I find most alarming and upsetting about this story, is not the all-too-familar profiteering of news media at the expense of ordinary people, who in any other circumstance should be regarded as victims themselves. Instead, it is the appeal this story has to the popular prejudices of its viewers and readers, that really sets off my alarm bells. How did I first get to hear of this story? It was posted on Facebook, and then shared and reposted, by more than one person on my friends list, who live here in my current state, Ohio. All of them educated, mature and intelligent gay men. Following their posts came a raucous crescendo of moral disgust from others in the local community, declaring that the assumed guilty was a “wretched S.O.B.“… and so it goes on.
Taking aside the specifics of this individual case, which at present amount to little more than hearsay, the question arises as to what it is that drives well-informed men in our gay community to become drawn into the bandwagon of criminalizing people with HIV. Sure there may be a few isolated individuals, who don’t act responsibly and knowingly put others at risk. But what is the relative importance of these cases, given that they are by no means representative of the vast majority of people with HIV, who are victims not criminals. What is the purpose of posting a story like this and expressing moral outrage at it’s subject? It is a sensationalist addition to a narrative that people with HIV are dangerous, potential killers and not to be trusted. There is something very unnerving about the fact that those perpetuating this narrative are members of the very community that the narrative oppresses.
After 30 years of HIV decimating our gay community, stigma and vilification of people with HIV flourishes in our bars and clubs and social scene. I have experienced it first hand all too recently in Columbus’s gay bars, when told that the bar’s busboy was “HIV-infested” by a customer who I’m thankful to say I am not acquainted with. Take one look at dating and hook-up sites, and for the last 10 years they have been littered with flagrant HIV stigma, with terms like, “DDF (disease and drug free)/UB2”, or “clean and recently tested”, as if either of these tokenistic declarations have any substance as an HIV prevention strategy. “Sero-sorting” is a strategy largely based on poorly informed assumptions. While studies have demonstrated it fails to confer protection it also has the effect of legitimizing the segregation of both HIV positive people and HIV as an intellectual concept. The only substance to such declarations in fact is to perpetuate and reinforce a “bully” culture of blaming the victim, while deferring one’s own responsibilities to another party. Pointing the finger of blame, conveniently assuming guilt, at an HIV positive man who has been paraded before the world as a disease-spreading pariah, is one more manifestation of that culture.
It would be nice to think that those in our gay community think first about the context for posting self-repressing news stories of HIV criminals, and how it plays into a popular conception of people living with the virus, that does nothing to aid better prevention strategies and increase awareness and everything to fuel fear and ignorance. But ultimately I realize that they don’t. One possible reason for this, might be the silence of those most affected by this stigma, and more importantly the silence of their allies and advocates. Because, while we remain silent and fearful of speaking out, the only voices that will ever get heard are those that seek to marginalize, segregate and vilify us. And as with WBNS-10TV, those sole voices in the room are very loud.
For more on criminalization of people with HIV, see http://www.thebody.com/content/67098/prosecuting-hiv-take-the-test–and-risk-arrest.html