By Rev. Michael Schuenemeyer
The current state of Ohio’s criminal code does nothing to protect the public from the spread of HIV. Instead, it reaps the unintended consequences of creating vulnerabilities and perpetuating stigma.
Stigma has proven to be a formidable and pernicious obstacle to ending the epidemic. Faith leaders and communities have a vitally important role to dismantle and end stigma and discrimination. The Framework for Dialogue is a tool for bringing faith leaders and people living with HIV together for an ongoing process of dialogue that leads to joint actions which strengthen faith’s engagement in HIV response and reduce and eliminate HIV-related stigma and discrimination. A centerpiece of the dialogue is evidence about stigma from the People Living with HIV Stigma Index reports, as well as other data about the experience of stigma, discrimination, and trauma.
When we look at this evidence with a faith lens, we see that many people living with HIV experience stigma in their faith settings and that it has an impact on their health and how they access the care and treatment services they need.
While our aspirational goal is to eliminate stigma completely, we know that for every degree we can lower the experience of stigma, more people will get tested, know their HIV status, access effective treatment, and care, be sustained in treatment and care, and achieve viral suppression to the point of their HIV becoming undetectable. And we know, the science has shown us, that when a person is HIV positive and their viral load is undetectable, they do not transmit the virus.
The Framework for Dialogue is an important model for addressing issues of stigma, like the criminalization of HIV. Modernizing Ohio’s criminal code is an important and impactful step in reducing and eliminating HIV stigma. Why is this? When HIV is criminalized, as it is in Ohio, people become more afraid to know their status because when you know you are HIV positive, you can be charged with a crime for certain behaviors, such as spitting, even though the science has shown that those behaviors do not transmit HIV. HIV is not a crime, it is a disease, and the criminalization of HIV compounds the stigma experienced by people living with HIV.
Because the Framework for Dialogue looks at the evidence and centers on the lived experience of people living with HIV it is able to foster trusting relationships and create an ongoing space for collaborative innovation. Faith leaders and communities can be significant sources of evidence-based information, compassionate care and support, and effective advocacy and actions that can have an impact on a variety of concerns, including stigmatizing language, how people are treated in health care settings, and outdated, harmful criminal codes.
The HIV response needs the collaborative engagement of faith leaders and people living with HIV to achieve the goal of ending the epidemic. The Framework for Dialogue is an important tool to that end and can lead to significant progress in the efforts to dismantle and eliminate stigma and discrimination. A critical step in that effort is the modernization of Ohio’s laws to decriminalize HIV.
Rev. Michael Schuenemeyer is Executive of the Office for Health and Wholeness Advocacy of Wider Church Ministries in the national offices of the United Church of Christ (UCC), as well as, Executive Director of UCAN Inc, the United Church of Christ HIV & AIDS Network. He provides leadership in U.S. and globally on HIV & AIDS and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender concerns. Rev. Schuenemeyer was ordained in the United Church of Christ in 1984. He has led the organizing efforts for the UCC in repealing the ban on gay Scouts and leaders.