Mc Clelland Criminalization 2 5c

Lenore, Paul, Cynthia, George, Stephanie, and others share their experiences with HIV criminalization in a recently published booklet by Alexander McClelland. All illustrations by Eric Kostiuk Williams

Visual AIDS Programs Associate Blake Paskal interviews Alexander McClelland about his recently published zine The Criminalization of HIV in Canada: Experiences of People Living with HIV. The booklet shares McClelland's doctoral research about the criminalization of HIV and the role of punishment in Canadian society, and features illustrations by Eric Kostiuk Williams. The full zine is available online here.

Blake Paskal: From an educational standpoint, I really appreciated the accessibility of the zine. It takes a complex issue that many people are not thinking about critically and breaks it down very succinctly. The humanity of all the interviewees was also very palpable, their stories intimate and real. When you set out to create this zine what intentions did you have for how it could function differently than more traditional academic texts or work previously done around HIV criminalization?

The idea was to create something that was accessible and that could help contribute towards giving people who participated in the project a sense of healing and justice. This research was conducted for my PhD., but it would have been horrific to keep it as some kind of insular, solely academic project just for me to get credentials. As someone living with HIV who has many friends who have been impacted by criminalization, I needed to share broadly what the criminal justice system was doing to our community. Much of the violence that people are facing is obscured by forms of bureaucracy, so it is a political project to break out of that.

When people are criminalized for HIV, or for anything else, they can lose all rights to agency, autonomy, and ownership of their own experience. The police, media, and criminal justice system take complex and nuanced human experiences, flatten them of any and all complexity, and force them into a victim vs. perpetrator dichotomy. People’s stories are only then told through institutions—such as police accounts, media reports, and legal documents—that are designed to punish, incapacitate, shame, and stigmatize. This project was a small gesture to intervene in that, providing space for people to speak for themselves about their own experiences—albeit filtered through me.

"I spoke with Darlene, an Indigenous woman in her early thirties, one summer afternoon, first on the phone, and later in person. She was warm and funny, and talked about her love of animals and her devotion to her children... As a sex worker, Darlene told me she knew the police did not care about her or her friend’s lives. Darlene was upset that instead of looking for her missing friends, the police conducted a sting operation against her."

Blake: One thing I was really surprised by was how often the folks facing incarceration are the ones to teach authorities about HIV, particularly about the meaning of undetectability. And the fact that this information did little to change their outcomes emphasizes your argument that HIV criminalization is really about punishment and making negative examples out of people. I’m curious what surprised you the most after your interviews, something that you could have only learned by speaking directly with those impacted by HIV criminalization?

Exactly. I learned so much through speaking with people about their lives. It’s a deceptively simple concept, but one that is equally easily overlooked. Talk to people who are directly impacted by the issue. Many social scientists or activists forget to do this. Sarah Schulman says that as writers and activists and people living in the world, we must always remember that other people are real. We must consider that everyone else is an actual person in the world, with depth, a complex subjectivity, and contradictions, and that people should have agency over their lives. The way people’s experiences have been taken away from them and told through authoritative institutions denies the fact that other people are real. This process turns real people into risky objects to be incapacitated and punished. But when you speak with people directly, so much nuance and complexity comes forth.

One Indigenous woman who I interviewed was labelled in the media as trying to intentionally spread HIV. She had had a very hard time emotionally when she learned of her HIV-positive status, she was depressed and suicidal. It’s a very stigmatized disease still to this day. She didn’t know how to tell the guy she was sleeping with that she had the virus, so instead she handed him a condom. She didn’t have enough power in the relationship to assert the use of the condom. He didn’t use it. She was charged with aggrevated sexual assault, sentenced to years in prison and is now a registerd sex offender. The official story that gets told is about her being a threat with intent to harm, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth.

Another woman I spoke to was sexually assaulted by a group of men. She tried to report the assault, but was not taken seriously by authorities, because the police knew she had a history of street-based sex work. Ultimately she was charged with aggravated sexaul assault, and is now a registered sex offender. Her name and picture were published in the media stating she was trying to spread the virus. Her account of what happened never made it into the official record. Talking to her about her life and experience gave her space to acknowledge what actually happened.

"Lenore is a kind and somewhat shy Indigenous woman in her late 20s. We met for lunch at the local Tim Horton’s with her boyfriend. She was initially reluctant to talk about her experience, given previous betrayals of her trust and privacy. She had been sexually assaulted in the past, but now she was being considered a sex offender, she was scared and cautious. She told me she felt ashamed and angry about what had happened to her."

Blake: People who face criminalization are often made hypervisible in their communities through photographs in the media and sex offender registries. But as you’re describing, that visibility becomes part of their punishment, putting them at risk of violence and discrimination. Your zine includes illustrated portraits by Eric Koustik Williams alongside each story—can you talk about why you wanted to include images of each of these individuals, and how you approached representing them visually?

Yes exactly. It’s interesting because many people use media articles as a source of research without considering that those very articles were mobilized to enable violence in the daily lives of people. One Black man I interviewed, Shaun in the booklet, had his name, picture, charges and HIV status, published in the media over and over again. People in his community used those reports to target him, and beat him up. When we talk about HIV stigma, it is often this abstract idea, but the physical manifestation of stigmatizing media coverage is Shaun getting attacked by a group of men up in his community while walking his dog. They said to him that they thought he was spreading HIV. He was virtually undetectable and had his charges dropped. The media never reported those details.

The last thing I wanted to do was reproduce those kinds of harms. But at the same time, there was an imperative to bring each person to life visually. To protect confidentiality, none of the portraits are intended to look like any of the actual people. And the stories are hard to hear, so I asked Eric to bring joy, vulnerability, and a realness to them all, to help temper the text. I gave him descriptors of each person’s personality so that those could come through, such as: has a great smile, is kind and warm, or, she is very charming and makes friends with people quickly, or, he is shy and soft spoken, with a witty sense of humour, etc. And Eric was wonderful at bringing these qualities through in each illustration, so that they could be relatable with a sense of humanity.

"Shaun lived in a low-income high rise and worked in a factory a bit further north of his place. Many years earlier, while dating a woman, he learned he was HIV-positive. Shaun went on medication right away... When he found out his HIV-positive status, public health officials had initially told him he posed no risk. Now the court was labelling him a high-risk."

Blake: Another important aspect that your zine emphasizes is how criminalization continues to plague those impacted long after they’ve served a sentence, or even if they are ultimately acquitted. In Canada (and also many places in the U.S.), those who are charged with HIV-related offenses are also registered as sex offenders, a status that leads to community isolation, targeted violence, and drastically undermines one’s ability to secure stable housing and work. How can we as a society better support those who have been affected by these laws? What steps can we take to end criminalization altogether?

Yes, sex offender registries cause so much ongoing violence in the daily lives of criminalized people. The solution lies in a fundamental reorganization of society. Singling out certain individuals and shaming and blaming them for a collective social health issue is the wrong approach. We need to undo the policing and carceral logic that leads to targeting, surveilling, and punishing certain individuals deemed to be a risk. Even the logic of public health needs to be undone. Canadian queer AIDS activist Gary Kinsman says that people living with HIV are not the “public” in public health, rather, we are the people from whom the public must be protected from. The entire idea that people are problems who need to be managed with a “daddy knows best” form of intervention needs to be dismantled. People living with HIV have been working to assert autonomy over our lives since the beginning of the HIV pandemic. We are not the problem. We take care of ourselves and those around us. I often say that today as a person living with HIV in Canada, the only harm that I am likely to encounter is not from the virus itself, but from the police, the criminal justice system, and forms of public health surveillance which have classified me as a risk to be managed.

Blake: Have you kept in contact with any of the interviewees? Have any of them continued to share their stories in other ways to push back against stigma?

A number of them are my good friends. Some I am no longer in touch with at all. Others I speak with on a regular basis. I also have friends who are incarcerated who did not participate in the project (it's very hard to access individual people in the Canadian prison system for research interviews), but who keep me up to date on their lives and what it means to live inside prison as someone with the mark of HIV criminalization. In some cases, the stories gave people a sense of community when there hadn’t been one previously, knowing they had gone through something so horrible collectively gave strength and some sense of healing.

"While talking at his place, Matteo told me more about what it was like to live under curfew at his parent’s house... He felt constantly surveilled, isolated, and depressed. He was barred from socializing in the gay community or going out to participate in social events. The condition that most bothered him was that he was mandated to contact authorities twenty-four hours before any potential sexual conduct, providing them with the name and contact information of the person. The police would then directly verify that the person knew Matteo’s HIV-positive status and that they consented to sex with him. “Like, who is going to want to do that? How am I going to meet anyone?”

Blake: As we’re living with the coronavirus at this moment, many are making comparisons to the AIDS epidemic. I think it’s important to think about how criminality and stigma either become or don’t become attached to disease and illness. HIV status has come to be seen as an identity marker in itself, and one that overlaps with other marginalized identities whether they be poor, racialized, or queer, whereas COVID-19 is seen as something impacting everyone regardless of identity. Do you think these intersections of illness and identity further illuminate anything about how and why HIV has and continues to be criminalized?

I have been talking about this so much now, and it took me a while to respond to your questions, and since then so much has happened. We are now seeing that COVID-19 does not impact everyone equally, with Black Americans bearing the brunt of the impact in some communities. We’ve also seen the massive and unprecedented scale-up of policing of COVID-19, with enforcement for physical distancing, isolation, gatherings etc. Regardless of who COVID-19 impacts, I know one thing for certain: policing and enforcement is never applied equally. Certain communities are targeted systematically by police. In the context of COVID-19, this legacy of targeting racialized, queer, and poor people has not all of a sudden been evacuated, but rather is becoming futher entrenched and intensified.

Alexander McClelland is a sociolegal researcher and Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Ottawa in the Department of Criminology. He is currently examining issues of confidentiality for research with criminalized people. His work focuses on the intersections of life, law and disease, where he has developed a range of collaborative and interdisciplinary writing, academic, activist, and artistic projects to address issues of criminalization, sexual autonomy, surveillance, drug liberation, and the construction of knowledge on HIV. Alexander is a current member of the Canadian Coalition to Reform HIV Criminalization.