Theodore Kerr
Theodore Kerr

For those concerned with HIV criminalization, all eyes have been on Missouri where over the past year two men living with HIV have been sentenced to over 30 years in prison for allegedly exposing and transmitting the virus to others, and a third man living with HIV was arrested for supposed intent to transmit the virus.

In discussing these cases it is often said, as if to explain how they laws came into being, that HIV criminalization was put into effect when less was known about the virus. What this logic obscures is the fact — as the history of the laws in Missouri show — that as long as there has been HIV criminalization, there have been those who railed against it. While people may discuss the effectiveness and morality of the laws and the impact they have on people living with HIV, what is not up for debate is that as long as there has been HIV criminalization there have been those who oppose it.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on October 29, 1987, that “Missouri officials are considering asking the Legislature to establish criminal penalties for people who knowingly risk infecting others with AIDS,” adding, “Also under consideration is a proposal to prevent discrimination against people with AIDS or AIDS-related complications who have been exposed to the disease but haven’t developed symptoms.”

Even in the face of a bill promising both protection and punishment, the Post-Dispatch ran a story that same day in the front section with the headline, “Experts Oppose AIDS Plan’s Penalties.” In the piece, Dr. June Osborne of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Dr. Robert Meyners, a sex researcher, and Dr. William Campbell of Washington University Medical School all denounced the possible legislation, stating it would further scare those at risk for HIV, be “a waste of time,” and further drive away those living or possibly living with HIV from seeking care out of fear of having to engage with authorities.

While in favor of the anti-discrimination aspects of the proposed legislation, Susan Spiegel of the ACLU still came out against the proposed legislation at the time, stating, “I don’t know of any other law that makes transmission of a disease a crime.”

Five days later, the Post-Dispatch editorial board began an op-ed on the draft legislation by stating: “People with AIDS deserve compassionate treatment, not isolation. AIDS is a public-health problem, not one that should be criminalized. But proposals being readied in Missouri...could make AIDS sufferers pariahs to be shunned rather than patients to be treated, and they could drive those with AIDS underground instead of encouraging them to seek help.” The St. Louis American, the historic black paper of the city, reprinted the op-ed the following week.

By the time the bill came to the floor of the Missouri state legislature in February 1988, The Gay News-Telegraph (“Serving Lesbians and Gay Men in the Heart of America”) was reporting that “a strategy for dealing with the legislature is not being formed by the Privacy Rights Education Project (PREP) in St. Louis and the Pink Triangle Political Coalition (PTPC) in Kansas City.”

In the weeks and years to follow, Pink Triangle Political Coalition would host community meetings, and public workshops about the implications on people’s everyday civil liberties.

In dealing with the fact that the bill had become a law, The Telegraph, who had been tracking the drafting and passing of the bill from the beginning, surrendered to the reality of the bill, not by flying a white flag, but through publishing a two-page piece titled, “Missouri AIDS Bill: What does it mean?” which began, “while the bill has certain positive points, it contains several features that will do nothing to slow down the spread of the virus, and that infringes on civil liberties.”

More than 25 years later the fears, concerns and observations raised at the time of the bill’s passing still ring true — the AIDS crisis is still ongoing. HIV criminalization has not curbed the progression of the virus in Missouri, and it hurts people living with it.

Diagnosed in 2000, Missouri resident Devon Wallace has seen the impact of HIV criminalization in his life. His friends argue about disclosure, what people should do the morning after if you realize your sex partner from the night before was intoxicated so may not remember what was discussed, and the role criminalization laws make them feel like outsiders.

Wallace feels that HIV criminalization, “provides more opportunities for stigma to perpetuate the idea that people living with HIV are solely responsible for the progression for the virus and between what happens between two consenting adults.”

Since 2008, there have been more than 15 prosecutions and arrests for HIV exposure in Missouri. Meanwhile, the number of people living with HIV in the state is increasing. In 2008, 9,877 people in Missouri were living with HIV; by 2013, the number rose to 11,704.

Addressing these numbers, a task force comprised of various AIDS-related organizations in the state formed and in 2012 released printed material that informed citizens about what HIV criminalization is, how it hurt prevention efforts, and how to work to have the laws changed.

Picking up the work of the coalition, the social justice nonprofit Empower Missouri will be reaching out to the community to find out what people know about HIV, and what can be done to secure an equitable standard of living for people living with HIV in Missouri, including looking into Missouri’s HIV criminalization laws.

In learning about the history of HIV criminalization in her state, Jeanette Mott Oxford, executive director of Empower Missouri, said she was not surprised to hear there had been opposition to the laws from the beginning.

For those living with the virus, learning about the early opposition and reading the early arguments against HIV criminalization can be uplifting. “Seeing these means a lot to me. I dislike the argument that says that these laws might have made sense at the time but now we know better,” says Laurel Sprague, research director for the Sero Project, a national organization that works to end HIV criminalization, “They were and always have been violations of human rights, rooted in prejudice and the false hope that making one vulnerable group of people out to be monsters would protect the others.”

As efforts continue to dismantle systems that negatively impact the lives of people living with HIV and hamper prevention efforts, looking at the past can help inform a better future, or at the very least help activists and advocates feel that they are not alone, and are on the right track.

Canadian-born Theodore (Ted) Kerr is a Brooklyn-based writer and organizer whose work focuses on HIV/AIDS.