Sean Strub, Alison Duke, Richard Elliott, Jessica Whitbread and Robert Suttle

A vivacious roar of 200 voices from around the world could be heard spilling out of the SVA theater last night on West 23rd Street. Representatives from the ICW: International Community of Women living with HIV (in town for UN meetings), people from the neighborhood, and others from across the 5 boroughs, gathered to watch HIV IS NOT A CRIME and POSITIVE WOMEN: EXPOSING INJUSTICE.

The films and the discussion that followed focused on HIV Criminalization, an intensifying and troubling phenomenon.

Due to a systemic lack of education around HIV transmission, rampant discrimination within the legal system, and a culture still scared of AIDS, people living with HIV are facing another threat: jail time. People living with HIV are being charged, sent to prison, being registered on sex offender lists and getting caught up in the prison industrial complex in all manner of ways because of state sanctioned AIDSphobia.

Last night, brought together by Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS, the Sero Project, Visual AIDS, Housing Works, and the ICW, people gathered to figure out what has gone wrong, and what can we do about it.

In HIV IS NOT A CRIME we meet Robert Suttle, a man from the south who works hard to make his young mother proud. After a nasty break up, he recounts the day he came home to find his place had been searched. His ex had gone to the police, charging that Suttle had not disclosed his HIV status. Suttle had to serve time and was branded by the legal system as a sex offender.

Finding herself on the other side, Jessica Whitbread in POSITIVE WOMEN discusses the moment, years after she knew she was living with HIV, when the police wanted her to press charges against the man who transmitted the virus to her. She decided no. In the film she wonders, is he a “murderer” who wants to infect people? Or is he just a kid who doesn’t know how to deal?

Sean Strub, who made HIV IS NOT A CRIME and is the founder of the SERO PROJECT, a growing organization that focuses on HIV Criminalization, pointed out as the panel moderator, “HIV is the only virus that is criminalized.” And this, he suggests is because of who is living with HIV: people of color, gay men, people who use drugs and other so called deviants.

Is HIV being criminalized because in the eyes of the law and in conservative circles we are already outlaws? Our lives already dispensable?

In the US, increasingly States are putting laws on the books that will see people living with HIV as criminals unless they go to outrageous lengths to prove they have disclosed.

In Canada, a recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling put all the responsibility of HIV transmission on the person living with HIV, a back slide from the already punitive language from that country’s highest court.

What was refreshing about the conversation in the SVA Theater was, no one debated the merits of HIV Criminalization. There was an understanding that it is wrong to criminalize people living with HIV, and it increases HIV transmission. As panelist Richard Elliott, Executive Director HIV/AIDS Legal Network, pointed out, “The law is sending a signal to HIV negative people that there is nothing they have to worry about (because the onus is on the person living with HIV), while making it harder for people to disclose.”

Instead the conversation was centered around disclosure, including a focus on how it is harder for women. Alison Duke, director of POSITIVE WOMEN spoke from the panel about the challenges she had making the film, working with people to appear. Because of multiple oppressions around gender, HIV status, and race, many women wanted to participate, but felt they could not. On the eve of International Women’s Day, it was repeatedly made clear, as voices from the audience emerged, that rates of violence increase for women living with HIV.

What the films, and the panel discussion worked to do was flesh out the conversation. What do we do about HIV Criminalization? What do we do about that intimate moment between people when lust, desire and so much more is at stake? How do we get through to the legal system and the world at large that this moment is about everyone involved, not just the person living with the virus?

Whitbread, who became involved in the film because she wanted to challenge ideas around innocent victims, thinks that while “non disclosure is a breech of trust” making it a criminal offense is not the answer.

Citing the growing tread among large, government funded AIDS Service Organizations to push disclosure, something raised by a member of the audience, Strub made clear that for him focus shouldn’t be on why don't people disclose. Rather, it should be around what could we do to make the world a better place to disclose. “ People living with HIV want to disclose, “ he said, “ life would be easier. But it is too dangerous."

For Suttle it comes down to one thing he thinks we are missing, “ People lack compassion. If someone does something wrong we want to send them to prison or make them pay a fine, or put them on a registry. Why don't we just talk and figure out what should happen when somebody does something we don't like.”

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When the Visual AIDS Archive Project began, it was said to be in response to the first death faced by artists living with HIV: death of their career, followed then by their physical death. The Archive was an attempt to keep the career going. Ensuring the work lived in.

In the face of growing criminalization, we at Visual AIDS see HIV Criminalization as another form of death, the death of freedom. People with HIV might be living longer because of advancements in medication and treatment. But what is the quality of life when you are afraid to be yourself, to be intimate, to trust.

Because art is the weapon of our choice when it comes to fighting the harmful effects of AIDS, we think about expression. And HIV Criminalization halts expression. The US has a long and ongoing history of using art against artists and the public. We can imagine a day when someone’s artwork is brought into a court of law in an HIV Criminalization case. This is one of our many nightmares. Working with artists like Jessica Whitbread and Alison Duke and activists like Robert Suttle, Sean Strub and Richard Elliott, we are committed to challenging HIV Criminalization. It is not right. And it is yet more proof that AIDS IS NOT OVER.

For more information on POSITIVE WOMEN: EXPOSING INJUSTICE go to: positivewomenthemovie.org
To watch HIV IS NOT A CRIME and learn more about HIV Criminalization in the US, visit: seroproject.com