In Tennessee, people with HIV risk criminal charges if they don’t disclose their diagnosis, and advocates say it’s time for those laws to change.
“The biggest problem with the Tennessee laws are: One, that they are outdated, but secondly, you don’t have to transmit HIV to be arrested. People are arrested and convicted just based on the fact that they have HIV and someone has accused them of not disclosing,” University of Memphis professor Robin Lennon-Dearing said during Tuesday’s episode of This Is Nashville.
Tennessee has two HIV criminalization laws. The criminal exposure law requires people who are HIV positive to share their status with sexual partners, or before donating blood or sharing needles. Additionally, sex workers who are HIV positive can be charged with aggravated prostitution.
Both are felonies, and anyone found guilty of either charge has to register as a sex offender.
These laws disproportionately affect Black people, women and the “economically vulnerable,” according to data from the Williams Institute at the University of California – Los Angeles.
“The most likely people are those that are poor because a lot of people that are convicted of aggravated prostitution are street sex workers. In other words, this is survival sex. They have no housing. In fact, we found that one out of five people arrested is homeless. They are living on the streets and trying to just make a living,” Lennon-Dearing said.
In a report for WKNO, reporter Katie Riordan highlighted Missy, an HIV-positive, Black trans woman in Memphis, who turned to sex work after losing a job. Missy was on antiretroviral medication and used protection so she wouldn’t spread the virus, but was convicted of aggravated prostitution after she was caught in a police sting.
Tennessee passed these laws in the early 1990s to prevent the spread of HIV during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Since then, HIV testing and antiretroviral medication have become more accessible, and there are now pre-exposure medications available for certain populations that have a higher risk for HIV.
“People still think that HIV is a death sentence, and it’s not. People are living — successfully, thriving. Many people take a regime of one pill a day. This is not a death sentence. This is a chronic, manageable illness,” Lennon-Dearing said.
In 2020, 19,214 Tennesseans were living with HIV, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.
Advocates for people with HIV are taking steps to change these laws. During the Tennessee’s 2022 legislative session, two Republican lawmakers from East Tennessee introduced a bill that would have removed criminal exposure to HIV from the list of offenses that requires someone to register as a sex offender. The bill passed the Senate but failed in the House.
“There was pushback from legislators who said that this would make Tennesseans less safe and that these laws exist for a reason and the people have to disclose,” said Riordan, who expects similar bills to overturn or change these laws to appear in future legislative sessions.