“If he is, I hope they try him for attempted murder.”
I read this comment on Facebook the day before Charlie Sheen revealed he was HIV-positive. I fumed, not at Sheen but about my friend’s post.
I’m one of almost 300,000 women in the United States living with HIV. We are about a quarter of the HIV-positive people in this country. I’ve been living with HIV since 1998, when I was 32. I found out when my then-fiancé, a man I’d known since we were in high school, was diagnosed with AIDS after a series of curious infections.
On this World AIDS Day, I wish I could say that I can disclose my HIV status without fear or shame or possible prosecution. I live in California, one of 33 states that still criminalizes HIV. People can be convicted for not disclosing their HIV status to a sexual partner. My body is considered a deadly weapon.
My deadliness, however, is a legal construct. Current research suggests maintaining an undetectable HIV viral load is the best measure of transmission prevention. Achieving an “undetectable” status is fairly common if one stays on a steady regimen of antiretroviral medications. I’ve been undetectable since 2007, a few months after I started taking HIV meds steadily.
Besides that, partners of people with HIV can further combat risk by taking a new daily regimen, PrEP, a combination antiretroviral drug used preventatively for people at risk of exposure to HIV.
In either case, there’s no reason to consider HIV a death sentence.
In 2009, my doctor said, “You need to know, you will not die of AIDS. There’s a lot of other things you will die of before you die of AIDS.”
My move in 2008 to Merced from San Francisco, a place that practically invented AIDS services, to teach at the University of California has been eye-opening. In San Francisco, there are bus stops with giant posters celebrating the diversity of people living with HIV. There are ad campaigns helping to destigmatize the HIV community. After years of being stigmatized, there were real efforts to help overcome the fears associated with HIV.
This is entirely necessary. Remember Mike Huckabee’s plan in 1992 to send all people with HIV to quarantine camps? Some still feel that way. For others, it’s an internal stigma. From my experience and observations, it will take time and persistence to overturn such ideas.
Still, sometimes people surprise me – pleasantly. I had a tooth pulled recently by a new dentist, who asked, “Any health problems?”
“Well, just the HIV,” I said, pointing to my chart. “Oh, so nothing serious,” he answered, moving on.
Dawn Trook is a continuing lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced. She wrote this for the Merced Sun-Star.