2 min

Homophobia lives in the courtroom

People tell me all the time that homophobic violence and discrimination is on the wane.

They say the fight to legitimize gay rights and to legalize gay marriage was so successful that today crimes against queers are usually isolated incidents, that institutional discrimination in the halls of government is a thing of the past and that it’s just a matter of time before sexual and gender identity is as irrelevant in wider society as is hair colour.

They’re so wrong.

On Nov 23 for example, an Ontario judge presiding over a horrendous and bizarre sexual assault trial involving two men insisted a witness, who is HIV-positive and has Hepatitis C, wear a mask while testifying in his courtroom.

“The HIV virus will live in a dried state for year after year after year and only needs moisture to reactivate itself,” said the judge. “I mean, he speaks within two feet of me with two serious infectious diseases. Either you mask your witness and/or move us to another courtroom or we do not proceed.”

At one point, court staff reportedly donned rubber gloves and put documents handled by the witness into plastic bags.

Judges don’t get special training about the complexities and nuances of HIV/AIDS, but it’s painfully obvious from this performance that they need it.

How on earth could there possibly be any true justice in that case when the judge is so painfully ignorant of the issues at hand?

And how are the rest of us to know how badly ill-equipped and unqualified judges in HIV disclosure cases are when court-imposed publication bans prevent us from ever getting a complete picture of what’s really going on?

Fast forward to Mar 27.

Ryan Handy, an Ontario man convicted of aggravated sexual assault for failing to disclose his HIV-positive status before having unprotected sex with a man who picked him up online, is sentenced to serve eight months in jail.

“I hope the judge is merciful tomorrow,” Handy wrote in a Mar 26 email to Xtra West’s Toronto sister paper, Xtra. “I hope for house arrest. I was found to be guilty but also suffering from a major mental illness and that has to mean something.”

“You selfishly and recklessly had unprotected sex with [the man] and exposed him to a deadly virus,” said the judge in Handy’s case.

Handy was also sentenced to surrender a DNA sample and to have his name permanently added to the Ontario Sex Offender Registry.

A report in the Mar 28 issue of the London Free Press bore the headline, “HIV positive man spread virus, jailed 8 months,” even though Handy’s so-called victim did not become HIV positive. There is no evidence to suggest that Handy passed HIV to anyone even though someone surely did pass it to him.

The one-sided and unfair portrait in the mainstream press of Handy as a sex criminal ignores hugely important and mitigating facts in this case.

“A large part of society, and especially the court, views me as just being a dirty fag,” Handy told Xtra in a Jan 7 interview. “Because of the fact that I’m gay and HIV-positive, the court has decided that all my rights can be washed aside. There’s so much homophobia going on. There is no fairness here. I am the victim.”

While Handy, an HIV-positive gay man in his 20s, suffers in jail, his so-called victim has retreated to a carefree new life in Vancouver. The man hides anonymously and HIV-free behind the court’s skirts.

He’ll never face public questioning about the choices he made to have unprotected sex with an obviously mentally ill man less than half his age and to then call the police when he discovered that he might have been exposed to HIV.

There are several other cases winding their way through the court system of gay men destroying the lives of their own lovers, including at least one that’s tentatively set for trial in Vancouver later this year.