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When People with HIV Became Suicide Bombers

Maybe we should blame the criminal prosecutions of people with HIV on the mythical legend of Gaetan Dugas, also known by his slanderous nickname, Patient Zero. Dugas was a gay flight attendant from Canada who, according to Randy Shilts’ 1987 book And the Band Played On, was among the first people with HIV in the United States.

Gaetan Dugas picAs the story goes, energetic Dugas (right) spent lots of time in the very early 1980’s getting laid in practically every city with an airport, even after learning he had the mysterious new “gay cancer.” He wanted to go out with a bang, the book claimed, and he didn’t particularly care who he might infect in the process. The book repeated rumors that after sex with bath house tricks Dugas would point out his skin lesions and then announce, “now you have it.”

Except the story isn’t true. Two years ago, Shilts’ former editor admitted the book needed a “literary device” and had encouraged Shilts to create the epidemic’s first “AIDS monster.” The scandalous sex life of Gaetan Dugas fit the bill nicely. Dugas died in 1984, never having the opportunity to answer his accusers regarding his alleged behaviors.

Instead of placing responsibility with everyone having sex, the book painted people with HIV as suicide bombers. The damage, to the truth and to the public image of people with AIDS, still reverberates today.

Laws exist in more than 30 States that criminalize people with HIV for not disclosing their status to sexual partners. Even where there are no HIV-specific laws, charges range from assault to attempted murder to bioterrorism. It should be noted that the vast majority of prosecutions do not involve the transmission of HIV. Often, the person charged used a condom, had an undetectable viral load, or engaged in sexual behavior that could not have infected their partner.

Anyone with HIV and a pissed off ex-lover should feel worried, since these cases often become a matter of whom you believe. Prosecutors and unfriendly juries are often shocked that people with HIV are having sex at all. They couldn’t care less about condoms or undetectable viral loads. They just want people who don’t disclose their status to face serious charges.

A lot of people see this as righteous and are taking the bait. Many of us know someone infected by a sex partner who lied about their status, and we want that jerk to pay for it. This sense of vengeance plays into the hands of a conservative legal system that is more than happy to send some diseased fags to jail. For a really long time. Regardless of the actual harm inflicted.

This issue is a real mine field of emotion, justice, science, and payback. Fortunately, an upcoming event will bring together advocates, legal experts and people living with HIV to discuss criminalization and map out a strategy to address it.

HIVisNotACrimeART“HIV is Not a Crime” is the first national conference on HIV criminalization.  It will be held on June 2-5, 2014, in Grinnell, Iowa.  Yes, Iowa. Some of the most effective activism around this issue is happening there, where State legislators are actually re-thinking their own laws and health policies as a result of smart advocacy and education. I urge you to alert your local HIV advocates about this important event.

Regardless of your views on criminalization, we can all agree that anyone who intentionally seeks to harm another person should be held accountable for it. That’s why we have laws against hurting other people.

But why are there laws on the books specific to HIV non-disclosure? HIV has its very own laws ordering people to disclose if they have it. The same cannot be said for other infectious viruses such as Human Papillomavirus (HPV) or Hepatitis C, which actually kill more people each year. The reason, in the mind of many advocates, is because those viral conditions are not as closely associated with gay sexuality. Or race. Or the disenfranchised. I hope you’re getting the picture.

Criminalization is not limited to whether or not someone discloses, even if those scenarios capture our imagination the most. Laws have other ways to punish those with HIV. 

Charges for an unrelated crime can be elevated if the defendant is HIV positive. Prostitution, or spitting at a cop, or punching somebody in the face in a bar, can carry more severe sentences based on the fact the accused is HIV positive.

In other words, defendants are guilty of living with HIV. That should give you real pause.

Surveys conducted by The SERO Project indicate that knowing about the risk of being charged with non-disclosure is an impediment to HIV testing. After witnessing how people with HIV are being treated by the judicial system, getting tested might feel like exposing yourself to potential prosecution.

These prosecutions do not rely upon the context of HIV disclosure, either. “The moral obligation to disclose increases with the degree of risk present,” said Sean Strub, founder of The SERO Project and one of the organizers of the Iowa conference, “but the context of the sexual encounter is also a factor.  In the context of a committed relationships, the disclosure obligation is much greater than in a sex club, for example.”

The key point here is morality. Disclosing your status is a moral issue, not a criminal one. Even in the worst years of AIDS, when the virus reliably killed you, we called our doctors to start treatment when we got infected. We didn’t call the cops. Blaming someone for our own risk behaviors seemed ludicrous. It still does.

You wouldn’t know it from news reports, which often feature race-driven cases of predatory men lurking around the countryside infecting the populous. Suicide bombers continue to titillate the media.

Look closely at the stories and you will find that “not disclosing” is usually equated with “intentionally infecting.” It’s as if sex of any kind on the part of someone with HIV is malicious. One side effect of HIV infection, it would seem, is a pathological bloodlust.

Never forget that these juicy legal stories represent the lives of real people. Sentences amounting to decades are being wielded. The convicted are having to register as sex offenders. In the often confusing landscape of sexual risk and negotiation, the person with HIV is facing grave consequences for decisions often made in the heat of the moment, or simply because they chose to protect their privacy when no risk to their partner existed.

HIV criminalization does nothing to reduce the impact of a new HIV infection.  It doubles it.



bars hands 2There’s a lot of great reporting and blogging about this issue right now, and here’s some of the best: Jake Sobo, the always intriguingly transparent blogger behind Promiscuous Gay Nerd, shares the frightening encounter a poz friend had when he visited his local health department and ended up accused of maliciously spreading HIV. HealthlineNews has posted an update on cases in Iowa that involve the very advocates doing such inspiring work there. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has made the gutsy choice to post an essay on the media’s role in perpetuating ignorance about criminalization (even though many of their usual media outlets refused to run it).  The most comprehensive piece on criminalization, though, could be “Sex, Lies, and HIV,” a ProPublica piece recently re-posted by HIVPlus Magazine that examines several of the most high-profile cases.




  1. Steve April 2, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    Excellent piece. I bought “And the Band Played On” the day it was published and couldn’t believe that a book that size could contain so much tabloid journalism. One could all but hear the hisses every time Dugas’ name was mentioned. If only life were as simple as Randy Shilts made out.

    We’ve had a number of prosecutions in the UK, with the tabloids predictably fighting to describe the accused in the worst possible light. We’ve even had a prosecution for transmission for herpes. What’s next? An end to the chicken pox parties, whereby concerned parents “get that one out of the way” for their offspring (the older you get the more impact chicken pox has)?

    How long before we’re getting the people we have sex with sign a form (in as many copies as people involved in the ensuing sex) saying that they entered the relationship(s), however temporary, in the full knowledge that one or more participant may have HIV.

    When I tested positive nearly thirty years ago, they actually said “well, obviously we’d prefer it if you didn’t have sex with anyone, but if you do, use condoms and try to stick to other guys with HIV.” It wouldn’t be the first consultant doctor I’ve had blushing by asking which STI’s are transmissable by rope and buttplug. Like the doctor who explained the process of a colonoscopy to me, who I allowed to get past the second sphincter before saying “well, so far you haven’t told me anything I haven’t done for fun…” His response: “Too much information” – so it’s okay do it as part of a medical procedure, but not for fun. For many, the crime is that the anus is not recognised as a sexual organ…

  2. richard April 2, 2014 at 3:49 pm

    Wonderful article; so much good info. Hope you can go to the Iowa event and report back to us! (your loyal readers)

  3. Jeton Ademaj April 3, 2014 at 1:06 pm

    Berkowitz, Callen and Sonnabend’s social paradigm is an abject failure, and criminalization is the fruit of that failure. their safer sex tactics have proven useful, but the framing and conceptualization of stigma that emerged from their work has been a primary factor in criminalization.

    the proposition that one can induce Society to adapt to a long term convention of distrust is nullified systematically from 1988 to the early 90’s, when the availability of HIV testing permanently fractures the expectations of HIV- and HIV+ people.

    Mark, no matter how many times you or Sean Strub repeat it, HIV- persons have no rational interest in pretending that everyone else is positive and behaving accordingly. Your quote of Strub is most telling in that his presumption that strangers in a sex club are a priori less deserving of disclosure than partners in a committed relationship is EXACTLY why most HIV- gay men support HIV criminalization.

    there is indeed a growing horror of HIV criminalization with manifold harmful effects…but the political paradigm Mark S King and others try to frame the issue in actually solidifies and intensifies that negative feedback loop.

    “i don’t owe you my + status” ——> “like HELL you don’t!” x 25+ years…

    …time for a a new course. the legislative corrections that have been implemented or proposed (at least the ones with any hope of political success) have long since acknowledged this nuance without trying to impose the “it’s YOUR fault if i infect you” paradigm implicit in far too much advocacy. you and Sean are halfway there, but these conceptual flourishes you guys love using do not sound clever, they sound sociopathic sometimes…like date-rapist logic.

    i look forward to the June conference.

  4. Jeton Ademaj April 9, 2014 at 8:36 am

    may as well add this poz.com posting here as well:

    Mark S King writes:

    “[A] Blaming someone for our own risk behaviors seemed ludicrous. It still does.”

    “[B] Look closely at the stories and you will find that ‘not disclosing is usually equated with ‘intentionally infecting.’
    [C] It’s as if sex of any kind on the part of someone with HIV is malicious.
    [D] One side effect of HIV infection, it would seem, is a pathological bloodlust.”

    …and in the above we have the core failing of HIV Destigmatization, which has only 20-25 years of *intensifying criminalization* to show for itself.

    A + B are rhetorical sleights of hand, willfully and carefully omitting the issues of recklessness and intent that are inherent in disclosure of HIV-status. this might work great on some Debate Team…but when it comes to destigmatizing one of the most feared and stigmatized ultra-deadly infectious diseases in human history, attempting sleight-of-rhetorical hand is disastrous…you lose credibility that you will have a very hard time getting back, AND your diminished credibility reflects on all HIV+ people when you present yourself as a leader of HIV+ opinion.

    NO ONE GETS TO BYPASS THE AMYGDALA…this is the primitive part of the human brain that regulates Fight or Flight reflexes. when a broad population has extensive fears about a minority with a NON-benign or malefic characteristic, attempting to BS one’s way around those fears ONLY CONFIRMS THEM MORE FIRMLY. basically the amygdala screams “Intruder Alert! someone is trying to play on my sympathy and sell me Death!”

    Thus, A + B = C + D

    i know you’re not gonna wake up to this from my saying so Mark…my only hope is that somewhere in your and others’ weird belief that these talking points will be helpful, you end up storing these truths i note here…

    …so that when your Debate Team tactics crash and burn horribly on the national and international political stage, you might at least be able to pivot or adjust better.

    However, i have no intention of sitting back and letting this maladroit strategy with 25 years of failure speak for me or the HIV+ people i know.

    (Always appreciate your taking the time to post your thoughts, Jeton. — Mark)

  5. Steve July 14, 2014 at 11:58 am

    Thanks for this Mark!

    By demonizing Dugas, Shilts was key in several factors that stymied our response to the AIDS epidemic. Perhaps second only to the initial term used to define AIDS, GRID-Gay Related Immune Deficiency, he was instrumental in defining AIDS as a Gay disease. HIV care and prevention efforts still struggle with that identity today.

    For the record, I knew Gaetan. Yes, even did the deed a few times. He was young, gay, attractive and it was the mid 70’s, not the 80’s as Shilts claims. Safe sex was not yet in our vernacular. Promiscuity was a way of life and deeply entrenched in our burgeoning Gay Rights Movement. We were both flight attendants and we both “Got Around” because that is what we did for a living. It was, after all, a career that required you to be attractive, poised and sexually appealing. Gaetan, myself and many others have had to endure a lifetime of slut shaming and marginalization, frequently from within our own community. I only wish that Gaetan had lived long enough to read a copy of the Diseased Pariah Newsletter.

    Passengers enjoyed being on our flights Randy! Oh, and I wanna front row seat when Gaetan and Randy meet in the afterlife…

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