Nearly 100 black gay activists, academics, and public-health professionals have made a bold public show of support for a young man on trial for knowingly exposing multiple sexual partners to HIV.
The men signed their names to an open letter addressed to Michael Johnson, a 23-year-old former Lindenwood University star wrestler currently detained in a jail near St. Louis.
“We write this letter to you, acknowledging that you are a part of our community. You are our brother and we support you,” reads a sentence from the letter, signed by 89 men, a group also including doctors and artists.
It may be a controversial position to take, considering prosecutors accuse Johnson of “recklessly infecting” two men by having sex with them without revealing his HIV status. But the men who signed the letter are hoping to bring attention to a set of laws they say is outdated and disproportionately punishes black men.
Johnson, 23, had dreams of becoming a personal trainer and posted workout videos to YouTube and shirtless pictures of himself on Instagram, where he went by the username “Tiger Mandingo.” He was openly gay and sometimes also competed in balls.
“Everyone wanted a piece of him, until he had HIV,” a local St. Louis prevention coordinator told BuzzFeed.
Johnson’s HIV test came back positive on January 7, 2013; he continued to have unprotected sex with men, according to court documents. When Johnson called to inform one of his partners that his HIV test came back positive, that student went to the police.
Johnson, who is black, has pleaded not guilty. His trial started Monday. He is facing two “Class A” felonies for allegedly transmitting the disease and four “Class B” felonies for risking exposure. A Class A felony is usually reserved for murder and can lead to a 10- to 30-year sentence. A Class B felony could lead to a sentence of 5 to 15 years.
(For reference, in Missouri, killing someone while driving under the influence would be a "Class C" felony, and jail time would not exceed seven years.)
“Michael Johnson’s consensual sex with his willing partners is being treated, in two counts against him, as the equivalent of murder, and more serious than murdering someone in a fit of passion,” said Catherine Hanssens, director of The Center for HIV Law and Policy, a legal resource center for people affected by HIV.
All but one of the 11 jurors selected on Monday is white.
A public-health issue, not a criminal one
Johnson’s supporters say HIV should be treated as a public-health issue, not as a criminal one. The open letter of support came together through The Counter Narrative Project, a network of black gay men whose mission is to "amplify the voices of black gay men."
“HIV criminalization as a whole is not being talked about. This is a conversation that needs to be had,” Drew-Shane Daniels, who signed the letter, told Fusion in an email.
“Most of the laws that [criminalize] HIV are behind the science, and the stigma they create is fueling the epidemic,” said Daniels, who is also the editor-in-chief of Mused Magazine Online, the online publication that published the letter and bills itself as the "authoritative voice for black gay men.”
There are at least 35 states that have laws that specifically criminalize exposing another person to HIV. In 29 states, it is a felony, according to a 2013 ProPublica analysis. Many of the laws were implemented decades ago, during an era when an HIV diagnosis could mean one had only months left to live.
That fear resulted in laws that today make it a serious crime for a person living with HIV to spit on someone, even though the federal government’s own Center for Disease Control (CDC) acknowledges “HIV cannot be spread through saliva, and there is no documented case of transmission from an HIV-infected person spitting on another.”
Little evidence to support the laws
There is little evidence to show that criminalizing HIV exposure reduces the incidence of HIV transmission. In fact, experts say these laws may do more harm than good, because they may discourage people from getting tested and knowing their status. Also, the laws may prevent some individuals from asking their partner about their HIV status if they are under the impression that a law will force their partner to volunteer the information.
“Defendants in these cases were often sentenced to years — sometimes decades — in prison, even when they used a condom or took other precautions against infecting their partners,” according to the ProPublica report.
What’s more, the letter reads, these laws “feed into stereotypes that assume Black gay men are irresponsible and hypersexual.”
Black men are already disproportionately affected by HIV. The estimated rate of new HIV infections among African Americans was 7.9 times as high as the rate in whites in 2010, according to the CDC. That same year, the greatest number of new HIV infections (4,800) among men who have sex with men occurred in young black men ages 13–24, the CDC reports.
In a written summary about Johnson's case, the Center for HIV Law and Policy in New York wrote "having unprotected sex is poor judgment, not a criminal act."
“Prosecutions such as this one ignore the fact that anyone who had unprotected sex with Michael Johnson put him, as well as themselves, at risk,” the summary pointed out.
In September, a 24-year-old black male in Illinois—who according to police reports was in a domestic abuse incident with his partner—was charged with one felony count of criminal transmission of HIV for spitting on his partner and one count of domestic battery, a misdemeanor. The criminal transmission charge in the Urbana man’s case was later dismissed, according to court records.
A new way forward
Experts say the HIV criminalization laws ignore research of how people become infected with the HIV virus and are at odds with public health strategy.
Instead, the conversation should shift to making sure there are enough funds to ensure middle school, high school, and college students receive sex education, said Keith Waltrip, Director of Office of AIDS Administration for Alameda County in the California bay area.
“It’s condom use, abstinence, gay relations, partner violence, and all of that, so that students can understand it and ask questions, and get their questions answered with accurate information,” Waltrip told Fusion.
Johnson told BuzzFeed that throughout his years of schooling he “never had a class mention homosexuality.”
BuzzFeed on Monday reported Johnson has been in solitary confinement for the past three months while he awaits trial.
Drew-Shane Daniels, the editor of Mused Magazine who signed the letter for Johnson, said what’s troubling to him is how mainstream news coverage hasn’t focused on what is working. Daniels said PrEP is a good example of what is working, referring to Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, the daily pill which can lower one's risk of HIV infection by 92 percent.
“We need to challenge this narrative by raising awareness through education, research and outreach,” Daniels said.
“Unpacking the stigma around HIV is one of the greatest challenges we are facing today with ending this epidemic,” Daniels went on to say.