HIV Stigma Violently Rages On: We Must Do Better


Recently, two news stories emerged that together paint a powerful picture of the dangers inherent in HIV stigma and misinformation about HIV, perpetuated in large part by the media.

In San Antonio, Justin Welch was arrested on June 16 in connection with the murder of 30-year-old Elisha Henson. Welsh is alleged to have strangled Henson with an electric cord in her car shortly after she had performed oral sex on him. A witness to the events explained that Welch said he killed Henson because she was living with HIV and “was killing other people.”

This is the second widely reported instance in as many years of a woman being killed in Texas by an intimate partner because of her HIV status.

Meanwhile, in Ohio, A.F., a 23-year-old woman living with HIV, was arrested and charged with criminal HIV exposure after a recent sexual partner accused her of not disclosing her HIV status. Local television news coverage seized on the events with a salacious story that villainized A.F. and perpetuated inaccurate myths about HIV. The complainant in her case was quoted as saying (by the time of publication, the video had been removed from the local station’s site), “She might as well have put a gun to my head. … That’s pretty much what you did … shot me.”

The words of these two men and the sentiments behind them have no basis in reality, and their panicked, enraged responses to learning the HIV status of their female partners indicate an urgent need for public education about HIV as we understand it in 2014.

Would Elisha Henson still be alive today if Justin Welch had known that there was virtually no chance of him contracting HIV from their sexual encounter? Should A.F. face 16 years in prison for a consensual sexual encounter when the odds that HIV was transmitted are similar to, or possibly far less than, the odds of getting struck by lightning in one’s lifetime?

People living in the United States need to understand that an HIV diagnosis is not a death sentence. Thanks to tremendous medical advances, a person diagnosed with HIV today can have a very near average life expectancy.  Further, the odds of a man contracting HIV from a sexual encounter with a woman are extremely low (four in 10,000 for a man engaging in vaginal sex), even lower in the case of oral sex. If the woman is on HIV medication and/or if condoms were used, the odds of transmission drop dramatically, approaching zero.

Yet these facts remain largely unknown, and as these two stories so vividly demonstrate, HIV stigma still runs unchecked, filling the educational void. Fear and scapegoating occur all too often: Eighteen percent of people report they would be uncomfortable having a colleague who is living with HIV, 29 percent of parents would be uncomfortable having a teacher with HIV, 36 percent of people would be uncomfortable having a roommate who was living with HIV, and 45 percent of people would be uncomfortable having food prepared by a person living with HIV.

The desperate need for current information about HIV and for positive messaging to counteract HIV stigma, plus the fact that six in ten Americans say that most of what they know about HIV and AIDS comes from the media, made the television news report about A.F.’s arraignment all the more deplorable. The reporter buzzes that the complainant “asked [A.F.] if she was clean before they became intimate.”

Clean?

The station’s unflinching adoption of this term blithely reinforces the notion that a person living with HIV is dirty, tainted, lesser.

It is this very devaluation of people living with HIV that was the direct cause of Elisha Henson’s death. In her honor, and in the honor of Cecily Bolden, who was killed by a lover nearly two years ago in Texas because of her HIV status, we must commit to do more and do better.

We at HIV Law Project stand behind the recommendations released last week by our allies at Positive Women’s Network-USA (emphasis added):

  • Promote comprehensive sex education to ensure that young people get complete, accurate information about HIV.
  • Support the repeal of laws that criminalize HIV status: These laws are frequently based on outdated understandings and unfounded fears of HIV transmission risks. They do not prevent HIV transmission or promote public health, but instead foster environments of hostility and brutality toward people living with HIV.
  • Pressure local health systems and law enforcement to implement recent White House recommendations to address violence and trauma in the lives of women living with HIV.
  • Based on these same federal recommendations, ensure that violence and murder based on HIV status are prosecuted as hate crimes.
  • Encourage responsible reporting by the media of Elisha Henson’s tragic murder and other cases involving people living with HIV: Coverage should be based on up-to-date knowledge of HIV transmission, must not portray people with HIV as predatory or irresponsible, and must uphold the human rights and dignity of people living with HIV.

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