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Activists discuss fighting laws about HIV transmission
by Matt Simonette
2018-07-25

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Laws criminalizing the transmission of HIV/AIDS are outdated, perpetuate stigma, and give incentives for not knowing ones' own HIV status, say experts.

In a July 18 webinar, "HIV Criminalization 101," Attorney Scott Schoettes of Lambda Legal and activist Robert Suttle of SERO Project discussed such laws and their implications for Illinois.

Tuttle discussed his own conviction for transmitting the infection, which has haunted him even as he moved from Louisiana, where the conviction took place, to Pennsylvania and New York. His conviction necessitated his being placed on a sex-offender registry, he said.

He was arrested at his workplace and lost his job, he recalled, and had to pay for an ad in his local newspaper saying what he'd done.

The experience also "revealed more than I wanted revealed to my family," Suttle noted.

But the experience lit a proverbial fire beneath him in challenging such transmission laws, he added. "Instead of retreating, I decided to embrace this work."

"People like Robert are resilient, but they shouldn't have to prove their resilience in this way," said Schoettes, who is Lambda's HIV Project director.

Illinois changed its HIV-transmission law in 2012, modifying it so that it only addressed anal and vaginal contact, for example, and more clearly discussed the issue of intent. But Schoettes said much more work remains to be done on the issue in the state, as prosecutions still do arise. A coalition has slowly been forming to discuss legislative and legal options.

He said that the office of Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx has been open to discussions, but added that, "We're not having the same kind of success in other counties."

Schoettes also noted that he was reluctant to advocate for a full legislative repeal of the law, since states without such laws have prosecuted transmissions cases under other charges such as assault or attempted murder. Rather, he would like to see the current laws modified to the point so that a burden of proof would be exceptionally difficult to prove.

"These cases can be harder to fight without parameters or guidelines," Schoettes said.

Coleman Goode, AIDS Foundation of Chicago's manager of community organizing, also took part in the July 18 call.


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