At the beginning of the fourth decade of the HIV epidemic, profound stigma and discrimination is a fact of life for those with the disease — not just socially, but within our legal system. Ask Robert Suttle, an advocate against HIV criminalization.
Robert, born to a 13-year-old mother in Shreveport, Louisiana, has lived much of his life at the intersection of multiple forms of discrimination and disadvantage: As a young African American man, he falls into a population with the nation’s highest incarceration rates. His home state of Louisiana has one of the highest rates of HIV infection amongst young African American men in the country, as well as the highest incarceration rate of any state in the nation. The cumulative impact of these challenges cannot be underestimated.
Nonetheless, Robert was determined to succeed in life. After graduating from Louisiana State University, he sought to enlist in the Air Force, but was rejected when he tested positive for HIV. But he overcame his disappointment and began working for Louisiana’s Second Circuit Court of Appeal, in Shreveport, as an assistant clerk. After several years, he was well on his way to becoming the first black male deputy clerk in that court.
But then, his life was destroyed. After a contentious relationship broke up, his former partner filed criminal charges against him for not having disclosed his HIV status when they first met. Robert was not accused of transmitting HIV or of lying about his HIV status. But he was still prosecuted under a Louisiana law that effectively requires people with HIV to disclose that status prior to having sexual contact, regardless of whether there was any chance of HIV transmission.
Rather than risk a 10-year prison sentence, Robert accepted a plea bargain and served six months in prison. He is required to register as a sex offender through 2024, and the words "SEX OFFENDER" are printed in red capital letters underneath his picture on his driver’s license.
Across the country, men and women like Robert have discovered the hard way that their HIV status renders them subject to a range of unique accusations and criminal penalties Robert’s case is just one of over a thousand HIV-specific criminal charges that have been filed around the country that have created a viral underclass, one that heavily overlaps with other categories of Americans who already suffer unequal treatment before the law, including drug users, LGBT people (particularly the transgendered) and people of color.
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