criminalization law,and Morat, prosecuted under a non-HIV-specific statute, was only thesecond person in that country to go to jail for passing on the virus.
YetAurore, who didn’t find out Morat had HIV until after their six-month relationship ended, was deeply troubled. Morat had appealed hisconviction, and many expected him to win: AIDES, France’s largest, mostpowerful AIDS service organization, had hired a high-profile lawyer todefend him. AIDES warned that Morat’s conviction could jeopardize sanepublic-health policy, especially the time-honored notion thatpreventing HIV transmission is the “shared responsibility” of bothsexual partners.
Aurore would never know the outcome of thecase. In the early morning of November 1, the day before Morat’s appealwould be decided, she got behind the wheel of a black Volkswagen. Then,speeding down an empty rural road in France’s Alsace region, she aimedher car at a solitary tree. Her body was found beside her crushedvehicle. Morat’s hearing was postponed so Aurore’s family could buryher and grieve. “When Aurore killed herself, I felt guilty,” saysBarbara Wagner, 36, president of Femmes Positives, a controversialorganization for women infected by their primary partners. “Her lawyerdidn’t see her despair. I thought I should have tried harder to reachher, but I didn’t know how far to go.” Two months later, Morat’s appealwas denied.
Aband of some 70 novice activists, Femmes Positiveschampions women who allege that they were infected by men who knowinglywithheld or lied about their HIV status. With no office and virtuallyno funding, the 2-year-old organization, based in Marseille, hasrattled France’s Paris-centered, gay-dominated AIDS community: Themembers want a law criminalizing HIV transmission in cases likeAurore’s—and their own. The women of Femmes Positives say they trustedthe men who infected them and scoff at the notion that they shirkedtheir responsibility to protect themselves. “We are victims of peoplewho used HIV as a weapon,” says the thin, pensive, dark-haired Wagner,never far from a Marlboro Red. “As long as there is no law, they willkeep on.”
By branding themselves victims, the members ofFemmes Positives are anathema to other French AIDS organizations,founded, like their U.S. counterparts, on PWA empowerment. But FemmesPositives refuses to wait for anyone’s approval to pursue its hereticalagenda. The group is already consulting with Jean Roatta, a member ofFrance’s ruling UMP party—center right and tough on crime—to craft anHIV-transmission law. What’s more, another UMP politician unconnectedwith Femmes Positives has requested that France’s National Assemblydebate HIV criminalization. Femmes Positives’ rightist collaborationenrages and terrifies many AIDS activists, who believe that if UMP—or,worse, France’s far-right Front National party—takes charge of creatingan HIV-specific transmission law, irrationally stiff penalties couldresult, as could the targeting of immigrants, one of France’s mostat-risk populations.
The U.S. may never face a battle likeFrance’s: 24 U.S. states generally or specifically criminalize HIVtransmission. Some 142 people in the U.S. have been convicted forHIV-related offenses. But the concept that everyone is responsible forprotecting himself or herself from HIV during consensual sexual acts— so-called “shared responsibility”—is as entrenched here as it isin Europe. What’s more, the dispute between Femmes Positives andFrance’s AIDS community could have global implications: Worldwide, morethan four-fifths of new HIV infections in women result from sex withhusbands or primary partners. What would happen if such women—not gaymen, the West’s first hard-hit population—got to make the rules aboutHIV prevention? Didier Lestrade, 47, the legendary founder of ACT UPParis and a defender of Femmes Positives, says gay men have subscribedto “shared responsibility”—in French, responsabilité partagée—for toolong. “It took two straight women,” he says, referring to Aurore andIsabelle, the other woman who pressed charges against Morat, “tomake the shit hit the fan.”
FemmesPositives began, in 2003, with limited ambitions. “We just wanted totalk about the problems of living with HIV as women,” says cofounderCristal (not her real name), a cheerful 42-year-old who beat anHIV-related cancer in 1992. Cristal says she was infected by aboyfriend who hadn’t revealed his status. The other cofounder, whodeclined to speak to POZ, is a mother of four who reportedly wasinfected by her unfaithful husband.
Word quickly spread aboutFemmes Positives, and its mission and membership expanded. Some membersare supportive HIV positive straight and gay men (anyone can join bypaying a 15 euro annual fee). But the core demographic are white,middle- and low-income women in their twenties, thirties and forties,many of them single mothers. Along with the typical burdens of HIV—medside effects, loss of sexuality, discrimination—the women of FemmesPositives say their confidence in relationships has been destroyed andtheir financial security jeopardized. Their children, they contend, areburdened with fear, knowing that their mothers have a potentially fataldisease. Many members admit to grappling with suicide, but struggle onfor their kids. “Rationally, you know there are meds,” says Wagner, wholives off public assistance and has a 14-year-old son, “but there’s somuch pressure and anguish. Suicide seems easier than living insuffering.” The young Aurore’s death has made her a Femmes Positivesmartyr. “Her suicide,” says Wagner, “was symbolic.”
The womenof Femmes Positives contend that they are accidental activists, pushedinto fighting for their rights as victims because the AIDSestablishment—from street activists like ACT UP to crisis hotlines totraditional ASOs—adhere
slavishly to responsabilité partagée. Thatdoctrine infuriates Marie-Christine Stipo, 36, a self-possessed singlemother—and the only member of Femmes Positives besides Wagner who hasallowed the press to show her face and use her full name. She says herex-boyfriend lied about his status the first time they slept together.“I’m tired of being told I should have made him wear a condom,” sheexplains. “He didn’t give me a choice of how to deal with the fact thathe had HIV.” Stipo calls her ex an “assassin” and says she “feltraped.” Indeed, Lestrade believes that ASOs have treated women such asMarie-Christine like “rape victims who are told, ‘You asked for it.’”
FemmesPositives’ sole pamphlet says the group seeks the “clear exposition…ofthe rights and status of victims of [people who have hidden their HIVstatus]” and a “judicial pronouncement…that will end this kind of‘crime.’” Five of its members—including Stipo and Wagner—are pressingcharges under non-HIV statutes against their infectors. But the womenof Femmes Positives, who wear their victim status like red ribbons, aredauntingly contradictory. There is much ambivalence within the groupabout how far a transmission law should go. Stipo, who has an11-year-old daughter, originally thought a long sentence would show herex-boyfriend “he had done something wrong,” but now thinks a few monthswould suffice. Wagner acknowledges that the six years Aurore’sinfector, Christophe Morat, received is “a lot.” Cristal goes so far asto say she is against criminalizing altogether—but that Wagner’spro-criminalization stance “represents who we are.” Nearly every timecriminalization comes up, Femmes Positives advances the possibility ofrehabilitative work programs or mandatory counseling instead of prison.The group even acknowledges that Morat was driven to put women at riskby the fear of rejection. One member, Roger, 36, says, “Morat was indenial—that could happen to anyone.”
While Femmes Positiveshas yet to crystallize the details, members say that, fundamentally, alaw punishing infectors would provide a crucial symbolic acknowledgmentthat they have been wronged. The group also knows that thecriminalization question is its trump card. “It’s the only way to getmedia attention and raise people’s consciousness,” says Cristal. Andmedia attention, unquestionably, is the source of Femmes Positivesinfluence. “Gay AIDS organizations have had a lobby for 20 years,”Wagner says. “Without the media attention we’ve gotten, they would havecrushed us.” She adds that Femmes Positives is not homophobic, andLestrade concurs. Says Wagner, “It’s not homophobic to say that womenhave been neglected.”
Wagner’sown story reaches back over a decade. She recounts it—smoking, ofcourse—on her cramped Marseille apartment’s futon. Above her hangs abloodred flag bearing Che Guevara’s image and the phrase Hasta lavictoria siempre— always toward victory. (“Obviously, I’m a leftist,”she says.) Wagner, who has been on meds since the mid-’90s but recentlywent on a drug holiday due to side effects, lives with her 14-year-oldson, Romain. He plays Grand Theft Auto with the sound off, as hismother explains how she met her infector, a charming, successfulphotojournalist, on a 1992 trip to Nice. The two fell in love, and sixmonths later, Wagner and 1-year-old Romain moved to Paris to live withhim.
Wagner says she and her ex never discussed HIV in thecontext of their relationship. “At the time,” she says, “heterosexualsweren’t informed that they were at risk.” Then, in 1993, after agynecologist urged her to get tested, Wagner was diagnosed. She saysthat her partner contracted the virus while addicted to heroin and wasin denial that he could give her HIV: “He told me, ‘I thought our lovewas stronger than the virus.’” He tried to dismiss her fear of dying,she says, but it was the pre-HAART era. She dreaded leaving Romainmotherless. “The sky fell. I thought, ‘I have to say good-bye to mylife,’” Wagner says. She also discovered that her boyfriend’s familyhad long known that he was positive. “His mother told me, ‘We didn’tthink you were strong enough to handle it.’” Afraid to tell anyone elseshe was positive for fear of losing custody of her son and feelingutterly isolated, Wagner attempted suicide. “I took pills and drankPastis 51 all day,” she says, pantomiming raising a bottle to her lips.
Wagner’s life improved, briefly, with the arrival ofcombination therapy in 1996. Although she and her estranged boyfriendcontinued to live together, Wagner’s doctor insisted she pull herselftogether emotionally. “Otherwise, don’t bother taking the meds,” hesaid. Wagner also got a taste of PWA empowerment—and the femaledisempowerment that drives her today. She dabbled in activism,participating in an ACT UP action against Pfizer. As a woman infectedby her boyfriend, she says she found little sympathy from her fellowactivists. “They only cared about treatment access,” Wagner says. ASOswere understanding, but urged her to put the past behind her.
Wagnereventually left her boyfriend and moved back to Marseille. Some timelater, her ex confessed that he’d been having an affair—and unprotectedsex—with a 40-year-old mother. “That,” says Wagner “woke me up. Iwanted to stop him.” She discovered Femmes Positives in 2003, and thegroup put her in touch with a sympathetic attorney. But Wagner isn’t optimistic about her case against her
ex-boyfriend. Thepoisoning law under which she’s pursuing him has a three-year statuteof limitations and has proved futile in other HIV-related suits. If a prosecutor throws out her case, she’ll try the civil courts. “I know Iprobably won’t win,” she says, “but I’m fighting to protect otherwomen.”
That sense of sisterhood is also what inspired her tobecome president of Femmes Positives. She spearheaded the group’sinvolvement in the Morat trial. Femmes Positives joined Aurore andIsabelle’s case as a civil, or supporting, party. Wagner was presentwhen Morat’s appeal was denied, and she was quoted in major newspapers,praising Morat’s conviction and lambasting ASOs for responsabilitépartagée. Sympathetic profiles of Femmes Positives followed,culminating in a segment on Envoyé Spécial, France’s most respectedtelevision newsmagazine. Wagner became, once and for all, a nationalfigure on France’s AIDS scene.
Wagner and Femmes Positives canalready claim one victory. The day the Envoyé Spécial segment aired,the president of AIDES, Christian Saout, made a remarkable admission inan editorial in the newspaper Le Monde. The head of one of Europe’sforemost ASOs admitted that responsabilité partagée, the HIV- preventiontenet that the entire French AIDS community had relied upon for twodecades to stem the tide of the epidemic, was a “true failure.” Heexplained that the doctrine was a product of ’80s gay culture but nolonger sufficed against an increasingly heterosexual epidemic, wherethe power dynamic between men and women put women at a disadvantage. Itwas time, he said, for a new principle that would combine both“informed consent” and responsabilité partagée. The editorial refers toFemmes Positives only obliquely—and never to Aurore. Although Saout, anAdidas-wearing former judge, told POZ that AIDES may some day reconcilewith Femmes Positives, he’s embittered by their “troublemaking” atMorat’s hearing. “That wasn’t very chic,” he says.
Notall HIV positive Frenchwomen agree with Femmes Positives’ crusade.Catherine Kapusta, who organized France’s first major summit on HIV andwomen in 2004, says the group’s emphasis on victimization isantifeminist. Morat’s conviction, she adds, will exacerbate “the fearof people with HIV and of getting infected.” ACT UP Paris’ MarjolaineDegremont says, “Femmes Positives makes me very scared.” She believesthat prosecuting people with HIV creates “good people with HIV, who arevictims of bad people with HIV.” French AIDS activists of all stripessay that turning over public-health policy to government prosecutorswould be disastrous: People will stop getting tested because they can’tbe prosecuted if they don’t know their status. People with HIV willshoulder all the responsibility for not transmitting the virus, therebyencouraging HIV negative people to abandon safe-sex practices. Inaddition, conditions for HIV positive prisoners, who already experiencebrutal treatment and inadequate care, might worsen.
Involvinga UMP deputy, critics add, could make criminalizing HIV especiallyproblematic. UMP came to power on a law-and-order platform; if itauthors an HIV transmission law, many fear its penalties could bestricter than the six years Morat got. Olivier Jablonski of theprevention website Warning says that if France’s extreme-right FrontNational party gets involved, it could “lead to a catastrophicoutcome.” Front National has advocated for quarantining people with HIVand routinely scapegoats immigrants; HIV criminalization could give theparty an incendiary rallying cry.
Survivreausida (“SurvivingAIDS”), a website for HIV positive immigrants (mostly African) andpeople from France’s ghettoized banlieue, or suburbs, has voiced thestrongest opposition to HIV criminalization and Femmes Positives,calling them “reactionary,” “repressive” and “venomous.” The site,which has published numerous testimonies of positive women who areanti-criminalization, points out that European countries with HIVtransmission laws use them disproportionately against immigrants.
Survivreausidahas also published an “open letter” from Youcef Ameur, a recentex-boyfriend of Wagner’s who was expelled from Femmes Positives lastMarch. Ameur claims that his former colleagues “don’t seek justice butextol
punishment and vengeance.” It was Ameur who alerted thepress and other AIDS groups that Femmes Positives had met with Roatta’sstaff. During that meeting, one Roatta staff member compared men whoconsciously transmit the virus to terrorists. “I looked at Barbara andthe others,” Ameur says. “They just nodded.” Ameur, who is of Algeriandescent, also claims that Femmes Positives has disregarded immigrantwomen, the majority of France’s female HIV cases. (France startedmandatory HIV case reporting in 2003, so statistics are trickling in.Preliminary numbers show that women accounted for almost half of newinfections in 2004. 120,000 to 150,000 of France’s 60 million peoplehave HIV.)
Saout, who stops short of categoricallyopposing criminalization, says
that AIDES remains at odds with FemmesPositives’ raison d’être. “We are not a victim’s organization,” hesays. “We combat AIDS.” He points out that AIDES provides extensivesupport services for women, many of whom were infected by their primarypartners—and didn’t press charges.
IS IT JUST A FRENCH THING?
Shirlene Cooper, 42 community organizer, New York City AIDS Housing Network
"If you know you have HIV and you pass it on to me, that is a crime, sure as putting your hand on a gun and pulling
thetrigger. I would definitely press charges. If you have HIV, you shoulddo your best to protect others. I didn’t get HIV by myself."
Annette Lizzul, 43 AIDS activist
"I probably wouldn’t have pressed charges against my
husbandwhen I was diagnosed—I was young and in love. Now, I’d go after himwith a vengeance. But it’s a catch-22. I hate the idea of criminalizingHIV. What if I gave it to someone unknowingly? But there’s also gottabe protection. A law would make men think twice. "
Susan Rodriguez, 45
president of SMART University, an ASO for women
"Idon’t know all of the details about [these particular women], but itdefinitely shows that women need more control in HIV prevention— we needto put more money into microbicide research and make microbicides."
Femmes Positives answersthat a law criminalizing HIV will deter infectors. Members also saythat it won’t discourage testing—because few people get tested anyway.As for working with UMP, Wagner says Femmes Positives has littlechoice: One left-wing politician told the group that “the issue was toohot, you can’t put positive people in prison.” She believes that mediapressure will force the left to get involved, adding that “we’recareful that any [criminalization] law will not be repressive.” Wagnerclaims that Femmes Positives is “open” organization and all women,including immigrants, are welcome. She won’t apologize for concurringwith the UMP staffer who compared infectors to terrorists. “In the puresense of the term, that’s right,” says Wagner, “it’s terrorizing.” Asfor acting out of vengeance, Stipo says, “If I had wanted revenge, Iwould have shot my ex in the head.”
Lestradediscounts activists’ fears of right-wing repression. The true conflictbetween Femmes Positives and other AIDS organizations isn’t rightversus left, he says, but “gay versus straight.” According to Lestrade,these working-class mothers and single women have unwittingly exposedan unpleasant truth to mainstream French society: The gay communitydoesn’t want to deal honestly with the dangers and ethics of HIVtransmission—look no further, he says, than France’s uncheckedbarebacking crisis. “Gays are afraid that [people with HIV acting [irresponsibly] will give them a bad reputation. People will have theright to wonder, ‘You have everything, you have free treatment, andthis is how you behave?’” (In France, meds are free.) As a result, thegay community could face not only embarrassment—but become a targetitself. “We believed justice would never come,” Lestrade saysominously. “Now, it just might.” Lestrade, the website Warning andothers point out that gay men have also suffered from the notion ofresponsabilité partagée. André Sarcq, a gay man who says another manknowingly infected him, published an editorial in Le Monde. “[I] havebeen destroyed, and it’s been decided that counts for nothing,” hewrote.
Despite all the heated rhetoric, a major Paris powwowon criminalization this spring didn’t become the ugly slugfest mostexpected. Participants say a true exchange of ideas emerged. Anunusually upbeat Wagner, the event’s star speaker, says that “it wassuper. We finally were able to clearly express ourselves to 150people—and everyone stayed to the very end.” “People” included France’sAIDS elite: Saout, ACT UP, Survivreausida, Warning, LeStrade and manyothers.
But the current calm is unlikely to last: Numeroushigh-stakes battles loom—and not just in the French National Assembly.Unlike AIDES, France’s National Council on AIDS, which advises thegovernment on HIV policy, has yet to abandon responsabilité partagée.Christophe Morat has appealed his conviction to a higher court, andobservers believe that he has an excellent chance of having his
sentenceoverturned. Meanwhile, two more women are pressing charges against him.And this time, both women have asked Wagner and Femmes Positives forhelp.
Whether Wagner can continue in her new role as women’s-rights crusader is also uncertain. When asked where she sees herself in10 years, she replies, “I don’t. I’m ashamed to say that because I havea child. I can’t believe I’m still here, fighting.”
And even ifWagner holds on and Femmes Positives gets the legal recognition it sobadly craves, there remains a deeply personal wound that no law canever heal. Wagner says she is in regular contact with Isabelle, theother woman besides Aurore who initially brought charges against Morat.“She’s not doing well,” Wagner says. “Christophe didn’t look her in theeye and say he was sorry. How will she feel when he gets out? She hasto move on.” The lack of an apology from her own infector hauntsWagner, too. “If he had said he was sorry,” she says. “I never wouldhave joined Femmes Positives.”
The women of France's Femmes Positives want the right to put their infectors behind bars. Are these fired-up females traitors to people with HIV—or just protecting their sisters?