For Tracy Johnson, 22 and HIV-positive, romance often begins at a karaoke bar. There’s music, conversation and innocent touching. He’s at ease until it’s time for the first kiss—that’s when he leans in, pulls out the document and asks the object of his affection to sign, indicating he’s shared that he has HIV.
That piece of paper, he believes, could save him from years behind bars if a partner ever alleges that he didn’t disclose his status. He carries it everywhere.
“I was scared,” said Johnson, a medical assistant and motivational speaker from Cleveland. He typed up the document after seeing a string of media reports about judges throwing HIV-positive Ohio residents into prison for non-disclosure. “I’m young, I don’t want to go to jail, so I want to cover myself at all angles.”
State laws that penalize non-disclosure of HIV status to a sex partner have become increasingly worrisome to people living with the virus. Since 2008, there have been more than 100 HIV-relaaavted prosecutions in the United States, according to the Center for HIV Law and Policy. Punishments range from a fine to up to 40 years in prison.
As a result, people like Johnson, who found out he was HIV-positive at age 15, are desperately seeking ways to document that they have disclosed their status to a partner.
Johnson’s Ohio is particularly prone to punishing people for non-disclosure. It’s a felony there to engage in any sex act—that includes partner play with sex toys—before telling a person you are HIV positive. Since 2008, police have made at least 27 arrests for not sharing HIV status. One Ohio man is serving 40 years on charges of failing to tell his girlfriend he has HIV.
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