Why HIV Diagnosis Still Carries Stigma in Michigan

POST BY Jay Kaplan Nancy Katz & Margo Dichtelmiller LGBT Legal Project Staff Attorney
December 01, 2015

When Charlie Sheen publicly announced that he is a person living with HIV, I was struck by two things: Sheen shared that, since his diagnosis four years ago, he has been on antiretroviral medications and his viral load is currently undetectable (meaning there are so few copies of the HIV virus in his blood that tests cannot register it). But he also divulged that he had been subject to expensive blackmails for the last few years in order to keep his status private.

These days, an HIV diagnosis is like being diagnosed with diabetes—they're both diseases, and they are both treatable. But because one carries a greater stigma than the other, people are less willing to talk about their diagnosis and to seek treatment. In Sheen's case, it led to blackmail.

Laws such as Michigan’s HIV criminalization law make it a crime for a person living with HIV to engage in sexual behavior without informing their partner about their HIV status. Of course, we want to prevent HIV transmission.  But the definition of sex in the statute includes consensual behaviors that could not and do not transmit HIV. Additionally, the law has no requirement of intent to harm, which is an essential element of being charged with committing a crime. And people can be prosecuted and imprisoned under this law regardless of whether there was any risk of infecting someone and regardless of whether HIV transmission occurred.  

The law ignores medical facts about the routes, risks and current realities of HIV transmission and care. We already have criminal laws that address situations where an individual intentionally tries and does actually harm another person.  A law like this that specifically singles out people living with HIV and punishes them for behavior that is either consensual or poses no risk for HIV transmission only serves to further stigmatize already marginalized communities, while missing opportunities for prevention education.

Due to the incredible medical progress that has been made in treatment for HIV, testing positive for the virus is no longer a death sentence. People can now live a long and healthy life with HIV, which is vastly different from about 20 years ago when I was an attorney for an HIV/AIDS legal services program. Most of my work back then involved drafting wills and securing social security disability payments for my clients who often died from AIDS-related complications.  What an incredible difference we see today.

As expected with stigma, Sheen’s announcement brought focus on his lifestyle—his sexual partners, his use of drugs and alcohol, and whether he was “asking for it” or “deserved it,” because of his past behaviors. That tells me that, despite all the progress we have made regarding treatment for HIV, the stigma regarding HIV still exists.

There is effective treatment for HIV if you get tested. People who know they are HIV positive are more likely to take steps to prevent transmission and seek therapy to suppress the virus. And yet, out of the more than 1.2 million Americans living with HIV, more than one in eight of them don’t know they have it. Because of the negative stigma attached to people living with this virus, many people either don't get tested or delay finding out their test results. They see the social rejection. They see the negative treatment of Sheen in some of tabloids. And they see laws that criminalize people living with HIV by virtue of their HIV status alone.

Michigan must work together with other states to rescind these unfair laws. We will stop HIV by uniting and informing our communities--not by criminalizing those whom we should be helping.

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