POZ Exclusives : Renewing the Denver Principles - by Sean Strub

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September 22, 2008

Renewing the Denver Principles

by Sean Strub

There are circumstances, for some serodiscordant couples, when the risk of sexual transmission of HIV is so negligible or nonexistent as to render obligatory condom use—to further reduce the risk of transmission—as unnecessary. The January 30, 2008 statement by the Swiss Federal HIV/AIDS Committee (EKAF) recognized these facts.

The assertions made in the Swiss statement are rightfully subject to continued and important scientific debate. They ought to also be subject to a widespread discussion within the community. But that has not happened.

The provocative Swiss statement was first met by silence or outright rejection from most AIDS policy leaders in the United States, who were more intent on reinforcing the “use a condom every time” message than taking advantage of an extraordinary opportunity to engage the community in a more nuanced discussion about risk reduction, and the impact of antiretroviral treatment on infectiousness.

Perpetuating an illusion of safety for those who are HIV negative is more important to many than recognizing the right to sexual intimacy for people with HIV and how that can be safely achieved.

Put simply, the sexuality of people with HIV is considered more as a threat to society than it is as a fundamental and necessary part of our lives and identity. Our right to intimacy has been devalued, despite the Denver Principles proclamation of “as full and satisfying sexual and emotional lives as anyone else.”

Restoring complete intimacy to the sexual lives of people with HIV is of vital importance to the dignity, quality of life and health of people with HIV. Moreover, social integration, without the crippling burdens of stigma or stereotyping, is crucial to reducing the spread of the virus and enabling people with HIV to fulfill one of the responsibilities outlined in the Denver Principles, which is to disclose their HIV status to their sex partners.

Efforts to restore safe intimacy to the sexual lives of people with HIV are to be celebrated. Opposing such efforts is an insult to people living with HIV, is discriminatory, perpetuates stigma, and reveals the hypocrisy of some who claim to be concerned with the well-being of people with HIV.

We ought not to be timid or shamed when pursuing our rights, whether that is demanding representation on boards of directors or pursuing our right to sexual intimacy. We may be stigmatized by the culture, marginalized by political leaders and criminalized by the law, but we must not be silent.

In the darkest days of the epidemic—when we were all frightened, when we were all suffering, when we were all angry—we knew what to do, and we did it. The Denver Principles are the Magna Carta of AIDS activism—our Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights rolled into one.

Returning to that original vision, heeding its clarion call and empowering positive people is our hope for the future. Thank you.

Sean Strub is a longtime AIDS activist and the founder of POZ magazine. He has lived with HIV for more than 25 years.

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