2 min

Progress on the HIV-criminalization front

Earlier this year Sky Gilbert’s piece, “HIV Stigma Radiates from Behind the Bench,” ran in the Xtra publications.
   The impetus for the work was the then-pending murder charges against Johnson Aziga, who was convicted in Hamilton on Apr 4 of two counts of first-degree murder for having unprotected sex with two women after lying to them about his HIV-positive status. The women later died of AIDS-related illnesses.
   Gilbert’s piece is a controversial analysis of some of the issues connected to HIV and serostatus disclosure projected through the lens of a gay man and sexual outlaw. In it he argues the moral issues as he sees them and calls for the dismissal of the murder charges on the grounds that, although Aziga acted deplorably, criminalizing HIV transmission is morally dubious on a fundamental level.
   The piece further catalyzed a great flurry of desperately needed discussion — in our communities and in the mainstream — about the criminalization of HIV.
   After the Aziga decision The Globe and Mail ran a cover feature on its Sat, Apr 11 issue entitled, To Tell or Not to Tell, the HIV Dilemma. (Check out Chris Dupuis’ rebuttal, “Wente Twists the Truth about HIV,” in the last issue of Xtra or on and see the reader letters on this page.)
   The Globe piece is an emotional, narrow and unsophisticated examination of the issue that reveals the author’s startling ignorance of the realities of HIV and portrays gay men as filthy, drug-addled, promiscuous purveyors of disease. Wente erroneously paints “the activist establishment” as a homogeneous mind-head with a single, unwavering agenda. She predictably blames promiscuity among gay men for HIV prevalence. She ignores — or is perhaps oblivious — that perceptions of HIV-positive people and common reactions to failure-to-disclose scenarios are twisted by stigma, irrational fear and prejudice.
   But for all its profound flaws, Wente’s piece and others like it represent a turning point and victory for those who demand that jurists take a sober second look at HIV criminalization. The issue is finally presented in the mainstream press as a moral one in need of examination rather than merely a series of sordid and sensationalized stories about sex, violence and villainy.
   “Knowingly exposing others to HIV ought to be a serious crime,” opens Wente. “Or should it?”
   A statement previously presumed self-evident is now a question worthy of careful consideration, if not by Wente then by others.
   On Apr 23 I attended a performance of Gilbert’s play, I Have AIDS. It’s an interesting artistic examination of these same issues. As is often the case with artistic works, the play manages to present ideas in a way that adds depth of feeling to otherwise sterile abstractions. It humanizes an individual gay man — an innocent and magnificent slut — who learns to live with HIV.
   One thing that struck me, in an audience mostly of gay men, was that different people laughed at different times, applauded at different times, scoffed at different times and rolled their eyes at different times. What one person found funny, another found offensive. What one found tragic, another found joyous.
   Although it’s no surprise that our communities teem with mutually exclusive viewpoints and passions, the audience reaction to Gilbert’s play suggests to me that HIV criminalization as a moral issue is evolving and moving to the fore.
   People are beginning to embrace the reality that HIV and human sexuality are far more complex than the provisions of the criminal justice system allow.
   It is my hope that the Aziga case will be appealed and that, with justices armed with a more sophisticated understanding of the pathology of HIV and the dynamics of disclosure, cooler heads will prevail.