A 22 year-old gay man from Spokane, Washington, who was diagnosed HIV-positive in August 2008 has been arrested and charged under Washington’s HIV exposure and transmission law following a complaint from a bisexual married man whom he met on the internet for casual sex.
The case highlights the great divide between criminal HIV laws and accepted practice amongst men who have sex with men. In particular, the Washingon State Appeals Court upheld in 1999 that if someone who knows their HIV status has unprotected sex with someone else without first disclosing then this is considered to be “acting with intent to inflict harm”.
Yet, the details of the case, which have been revealed in a series of stories published by local papers and TV in and around Spokane, suggest that the man had no intention of inflicting harm.
In yet another US trial by media, he was interviewed following his arraignment, by local TV station KXLY, during which he admits his (moral, rather than legal) guilt.
In a jail house interview Thursday afternoon [he] says he willingly had unprotected sex with men he met in online, on chat lines and in People’s Park without telling them he had HIV. “I can’t count but I think there’s a few that didn’t know,” [he] said…The 22-year-old contracted the virus from a former boyfriend and has known he’s HIV-positive since August but he continued to have unprotected sex and admits he only told about half the men he has the virus. “I wanted to apologize to everybody I’ve come into contact with and haven’t told,” he said.
[…He] said he had “no idea” why he was having unprotected sex, but claims that Spokane’s gay community isn’t as concerned as it used to be about the virus. “Nowadays if somebody has HIV they don’t care, they don’t care about asking,” he said. [He] is now sorry he wasn’t more careful with the married man that went to police. “I want to apologize to him and his family for putting him at risk, his wife at risk. Their lives are pretty much ruined from this point on if it comes back positive on them.”
The story doesn’t stop there, however. Citing police concerns that the man had sex with around 70 men since his diagnosis, Spokane’s public health department is launching an outreach campaign, including ads on craigslist and manhunt, and posters in public cruising areas, encouraging people to undergo HIV testing.
“We understand there may have been a number of anonymous sex partners that could have been exposed to HIV and because of this we are doing some extra outreach efforts,” said Lisa St. John with the Spokane Regional Health District. This type of outreach is something the health district has never done before. They want people to know they’re not affiliated with any kind of police investigation.
Last week, according to a story from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that number is now up to 80. Public health officials appear to be incredulous that a gay man with HIV could have so many sex partners (they obviously live very sheltered lives).
“Since I’ve been here we’ve not had an investigation of this magnitude,” said district spokeswoman Julie Graham, who’s been with the district for at least five years. According to court documents, [the accused man] signed health district paperwork last year warning him it was a crime to expose people to the virus without telling them. But [his] friends told police that he routinely meets anonymous men on the Internet and that he often visited a local park to have sex.
The health district has a process for discouraging risky sexual behavior, which can include issuing a cease-and-desist order, which if violated, can land the client in the court system. “On a rare occasion that we find out that someone has intentionally put others at risk, we would take the actions first to keep that from happening,” Graham said. “This is our first time where we have had our records subpoenaed by police as a first step.”
The person making the most sense was the accused man’s father, who apparently only discovered his son’s HIV status a few months ago. Both parents are supporting their son, and their response has been heroically pragmatic.
“I just feel that unsafe sex by anybody is real dumb in this place and time in the world,” [his father] said. “I blame both equally.”
Unfortunately, Washington State laws don’t blame both equally. The man has now pleaded not guilty, and a trial is set for July 20th.