Poster1 2

Created during the Flash Collective at "HIV Is Not A Crime: National Conference on HIV Criminalization"

The community response to eradicate HIV Criminalization has been steadily growing over the past five years. These efforts culminated earlier this month at the HIV Is Not A Crime: National Conference on HIV Criminalization. While Visual AIDS was not able to attend, activist and nature lover Samuel James Pottebaum was there. Below is his report on the conference, followed by links for further reading.

One hundred and seventy HIV/AIDS activists from across the US and around the world attended the first ever HIV Is Not a Crime: National Conference on HIV Criminalization, hosted by Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa. The conference was organized by The Sero Project, a network of people with HIV and allies, focused upon ending inappropriate criminal prosecutions of people with HIV for non-disclosure of their HIV status, potential or perceived HIV exposure or HIV transmission. Attendees were a diverse group of organizers, volunteers, and activists who participated with the intent of coming away with action plans and stronger networks to assist in empowering their local efforts.

On the first night attendees packed into the main auditorium to hear the featured speakers: Donald Baxter, Donald Bogardus, Ken Pinkela, Tiffany Moore, Monique Moree, Nick Rhoades, Robert Suttle, Reed Vreeland fielding a phone call of Kerry Thomas via an Idaho prison, and special guest speaker, Grinnell College President Dr. Raynard Kington. The evening was crucial as it allowed everyone to get to know each other, provided everyone an opportunity to get on the same page around HIV Criminalization, and ensured that the conference was understood to be an inclusive event which provided opinions from local and national levels of involvement, and varying degrees of activism over time.

The next day was full, plus incredibly informative. We gathered again in the large auditorium. There were sessions in which information was shared about how HIV Criminalization is different in each state, and arguments in opposition to criminalization. At one panel audience participation for arguing against HIV criminalization was encouraged. Audience members’ differing approaches were transcribed in real time on multiple dry erase boards around the room. As a group we shared stories and chatted about the HIV/AIDS Care Continuum, also referred to as the “Treatment Cascade” (Diagnosis, Link to Care, Staying in Care, Getting on ART, and maintaining an Undetectable Viral Load). Later on, our comments were categorized by moderators within different approaches: focus to health and safety, mass incarceration, and countering opposition by discovering constituents and allies.

As a group we also discussed the idea of incarceration as marginalization, and how the general public often places blame upon the person living with HIV, rather than looking at how society targets and further perpetuates the cycle of abuse that HIV positive people face. This is due to the public’s lack of knowledge of HIV/AIDS, and the stigma created by its inability to understand. We also discussed that just by nature of being positive, people living with HIV become targets for systemic racism, reproductive policing, and homophobia. Our mere existence is criminalized.

After lunch, the breakout sessions started. Out of the 6 sessions to choose from, I participated in the Flash Collective with Avram Finkelstein, known for working within collectives to create the Silence = Death logo and the Ronald Reagan AIDSGATE poster. This gathering was akin to a roundtable focus group, emphasizing collective decision-making, and engaging the general public in HIV criminalization messaging. Avram stressed clarity in our message creation; our communication could be incredibly coded, but we must mean what we say, and have it easily understood. This session was core to producing dialogue for public spaces (the audience defines everything), and to produce cultural collaboration around why people should care about HIV criminalization.

The conference came on the cusp of the reformation of Iowa’s HIV Criminalization statute, which is good news to people within the state of Iowa, and providing inspiration for future HIV Criminal statute reform movements. Read here for more information.

The next day I was running around shuttling people to the airport and the conference, so I wasn’t able to attend many of the workshops and sessions. However, I did get to witness one of the biggest highlights of my life; Nick Rhoades and Donald Bogardus getting their GPS ankle bracelets cut off by Senator Matt McCoy and attorney Dan Johnston, due to Iowa’s HIV Criminalization law being rewritten. This signifies that they no longer had to participate in monitoring, mandatory curfews, various lie-detector testing / interviews, and were no longer on the sex-offender registry (which means a lot when you consider where you can locate, what you have to do when you find a location, supervision around children, and the almost impossibility of obtaining a job).

Nick Rhoades was convicted and sentenced to 25 years under Iowa’s HIV criminal statue, of non-disclosure and in a consensual sexual circumstance using a condom. It was also impossible for Nick to transmit the virus due to his undetectable status and using a condom, with the man pressing charges remaining HIV negative. Donald Bogardus also had an undetectable viral load and didn’t transmit HIV (undetectable means that if you were to test for HIV, the test would come up negative, hence the term undetectable), and was facing up to 25 years after a former partner pressed charges.

As a conference participant, I was struck by the camaraderie and enthusiasm of attendees. The guidance and encouragement of the group bolstered morale, creating sensitivity toward one another that was positively electric. Sometimes within the activist community, there is a high level of burnout and inability to celebrate victories, as there are constant obstacles to still overcome. This was not the case here, as everyone present appeared to be revitalized and renewed at the closing stages.

This was an incredible conference, to which I owe a great debt of gratitude for all those who participated and organized it. I have more confidence in my ability to act as a better activist/ally, and feel bolstered by the great potential that I have realized within myself and within all the connections and friends I made. I learned that I am not alone in this fight. I was glad to be a part of this conference, and can’t wait to assist more within the greater HIV criminalization movement. I have nothing but the highest of accolades.

Samuel James Pottebaum, aka Sr. Apocrypha l'Poesie of the Midwest Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, is an LGBTQ activist, mapmaker, bicyclist, gardener, and fermentation enthusiast living in Iowa. He likes hiking and canoeing in natural areas, and meeting people who enjoy lively conversation.

Further reading:
Conference Opens With Strong Showing- Mathew Rodriquez, The Body
Women Speak Out about HIV Criminalization- Mathew Rodriquez, The Body
Advocates Speak: Voices from Grinnell - The Center for HIV Law and Policy
The Powerful "HIV Is Not A Crime" Conference (video) - Mark S. King, My Fabulous Disease