By Bryan Jones
I first became interested in HIV criminalization laws while attending a United States Conference on Aids in 2010. I attended a session given by a lawyer from the Center for HIV Law and policy out of New York. Needless to say, I was intrigued and had many questions as to why these laws weren’t being addressed in my state. In the deep recesses of my mind, I think I vaguely remember a conversation about the laws but never to this magnitude in which they were being addressed in this session.
Quite frankly I didn’t think that folks were actually being prosecuted under these laws because when I was diagnosed in 1984 there seem to be a given of people taking responsibility for whom they slept with and the part they played in the sexual act, be it from a relationship or a casual hookup. It was considered responsible behavior. But on this day I had a rude awakening. After the session, I asked for the lawyer’s card because I had so many questions.
After returning home I reach out to many more established advocates than myself and other acquaintances throughout the state I had met at HIV state-wide retreats and no one seemed to have any conversation other than the laws that existed. Surprisingly or I should say not so surprisingly many people living with HIV were not even aware of these laws. From the point of hearing about these laws and how people were being prosecuted, I became very scared and guarded about every aspect of my life.
I felt like I was living in a war zone and my survival hinged on the fact of how well I could hide my status. I began to have second thoughts on this whole HIV advocacy thing. I was so torn because I had just become comfortable with being open about my status taking back my power now the very thing that had given me life, my advocacy around HIV, was the same thing that I thought was going to drive me back into hiding and I knew that wasn’t a pleasant place and no way to live. I called it the. “Ann Frank syndrome.” it’s like I was hiding waiting to be discovered.
The more I thought about it many of us seem to be living and acting as if we were in a secret club. I never quite understood the behavior or even that it existed to the magnitude I came to realize until my eyes were open at that session. The advocate in me needed answers and what I found most odd is why no one that I knew of in my state was having any conversations around these laws at least not public ones that I could listen in and be a part of. I knew I couldn’t take living in fear afraid to go out in public afraid to socialize with anyone that I had been intimate with. I began to educate myself on our law and learned at the time the law stated in Ohio one needed to disclose even before you kissed someone. This was very problematic for me because I always used kissing as a measuring rod as to if a person was right for me, if the kiss was right and felt right. I became more alarmed because of those whom I had kissed casually and something I enjoyed might be the very thing that could send me to prison for a very long time.
Yes, I clutched my pearls to the point I almost strangled myself with them at the thought. Without thinking I knew something had to be done I was driving myself insane I couldn’t function. I called the Center for HIV Law and Policy and asked them questions about the work they did as well as follow up questions concerning information discussed in the session. I learned from that workshop that they were assisting other states in addressing their laws. They had a division of their organization called the “Positive Justice Project “and I wanted in. They explained to me at that time they only had limited funding to cover so many states. I kept asking them can you come to Ohio. After calling them for several months. I figured I needed to talk to other advocates about mobilizing.
After reaching out to several advocates many of whom didn’t want to be involved I managed to get at least three other advocates who were all in and continue to be involved to this date. We started to have our own calls but folks would get on the calls but the faithful few were the only ones to remain. We struggled for a few years and each month I would continue to call. The center for HIV law and policy ‘ Positive justice Project ‘ until one day after close to two years of calls they finally said OK. I don’t know if it was because of my persistence or just the sheer getting on their nerves. Whatever it was I was willing to own it. I began to invite others on the call and engage other stakeholders in the conversation.
The first major successful event was a statewide criminalization meeting held in Cleveland and the positive justice project came and the room was filled with over 75 participants from around the state.
Now several years later we have a wonderful organization – the Ohio Health Modernization Movement, and because of my persistence with the national training academy for modernizing state HIV non-disclosure laws. HIV IS NOT A CRIME TRAINING ACADEMY #4 I’m proud to say we will be hosting it here in Ohio this June in Columbus at Ohio State University.
I am proof positive (all puns intended) of how one man’s persistence can make a difference.
Bryan C. Jones is the Founder of The Sankofa initiative, Founder of the Dirt Advocacy Movement, Founding Steering Committee Member of U=U / U=U inaugural Ambassadors, and Founding Member of the Ohio Health Modernization Movement.