US: Anti-criminalisation advocacy goes mainstream for World AIDS Day

World AIDS Day saw unprecedented media attention on advocacy against HIV criminalisation in the United States.

Following on from the flurry of media interest stemming from advocacy at the International AIDS Conference held in Washington DC this summer, including a major piece on CNN’s website, CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta interviewed Nick Rhoades and Robert Suttle.

In case the video disappears in the future: here’s the transcript.

Coming up, when sex, even consensual sex becomes a crime. We’ll explain.


GUPTA: This weekend marks World AIDS Day, and this weekend, we got some, what I would consider, extremely troubling news, perhaps surprising as well.

Listen to this closely: more than a quarter of all new HIV infections in this country are in 13 to 24-year-olds. And most of those young people don’t even know that they are infected.

Now, as you know, there’s always been secrecy around HIV/AIDS. But it also brings up a tough issue. More than half of the United States’ states have laws that make it a crime for people with HIV to not disclose it when they have sex. Now, some say that’s only fair, but others say making this crime not just scares people and keeps them from being tested or seeking care.


GUPTA (voice-over): Four years ago, Nick Rhoades, an HIV positive, 34- year-old, living in Iowa, met a younger man. They hit it off, and had sex.

NICK RHOADES, CONVICTED OF CRIMINAL TRANSMISSION OF HIV: My viral load is undetectable. I wore a condom. I did everything I could to protect him and myself.

GUPTA: What Rhoades didn’t do was tell his friend about having HIV. And when the friend out later, he sought treatment at a local hospital. And the hospital employee called the police.

Rhodes was arrested, charged with criminal transmission of HIV and after pleading guilty on the advice of his lawyer, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

RHOADES: I served over a year locked up, some of it in maximum security and some of it in solitary confinement. And I still have to register as a sex offender for the rest of my life. GUPTA: Scott Schoettes, an the attorney for Lambda Legal, is Rhoades new lawyer. He is asking the Iowa Supreme Court to overturn Rhoades conviction.

SCOTT SCHOETTES, HIV PROJECT DIRECTOR, LAMBDA LEGAL: This case in particular was compelling, it really was a good example of the ways in which these laws are misused by the justice system to punish people in very severe ways for things that should not even be crimes.

GUPTA: About a thousand miles away in Louisiana, a similar case.

Robert Suttle said his partner knew Suttle had HIV, but after a messy break-up, his ex went to the police. Suttle was charged of intentionally exposing the man to the AIDS virus.


GUPTA: To avoid a possible 10-year sentence, Suttle entered a plea. And he spent six months in jail.

Under the picture on his driver’s license in bold red capital letters, it says “sex offender”. He has to carry that tag for 15 years.

SUTTLE: There are a lot of good people in the world that are HIV positive, but that doesn’t mean that they are criminals. It doesn’t mean they have malicious intent to hurt anybody. They’re just trying to deal and cope with having this disease. And yet, there’s these laws that make us look like we’re criminals.

GUPTA: At least 34 states and two U.S. territories have laws that criminalize activities of people with HIV. Not disclosing your status to a sexual partner, that can land you in jail. So can spitting on somebody or biting them if you have the disease.

Often, it doesn’t matter if you actually transmit the virus. In fact, the man that slept with Rhoades never got HIV.

REP. BARBARA LEE (D), CALIFORNIA: Jail time is not warranted in these cases.

GUPTA: Last year, Congresswoman Barbara Lee introduced legislation to get rid of these state laws.

LEE: Many offenses receive a lesser sentence than the transmission of HIV. And these laws, again, they’re archaic. They’re wrong. They are unjust. And they need to be looked at and taken off of the books.

GUPTA: Prosecutor Scott Burns agrees that the laws need updating, but he also says repeal would be a mistake.

SCOTT BURNS, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NATIONAL DISTRICT ATTORNEYS ASSOCIATION: Any time that someone knows they have HIV or AIDS doesn’t disclose that to the other party, I think, is wrong. I think there should be a sanction. I just don’t think you do that in America. And I think most prosecutors would agree with me. GUPTA: Rhoades and Suttle now work for the Sero Project. It’s a group that fights stigma and discrimination, trying to make the case that what happened to them should never happen to others.

SUTTLE: We cannot sit and ignore the fact that this is happening.

RHOADES: I have to fight for this, and I think there are a lot of people that are fighting, as well.


GUPTA: Now, I should say the accuser in Nick’s case didn’t want to talk to us. And the identity of Robert’s accuser is sealed as well by court order.

In addition, a local Iowa TV station, KWWL, in the county where Nick Rhoades was prosecuted, led with this fantastic interview with Tami Haught from CHAIN (Community HIV/Hepatitis Advocates of Iowa Network), who is leading Iowa’s campaign to modernize the HIV criminalization law. – News

Finally, yesterday saw the US National Dialogue on the Criminalization of HIV Transmission, Exposure and Non-disclosure: The role of the States and the Federal Government, on Capitol Hill in Washington DC. I’m sure there will be more written about this, but I’m including below a collection of all the tweets and images created live to give you an idea of the richness of the conversation, who was there, and who wasn’t. Thanks especially to Darby Hickey for summarising the dialogue so well.