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How I helped change the law that put me and other Black people with HIV behind bars

How I helped change the law that put me and other Black people with HIV behind bars
Courtesy Lashanda Salinas; Shutterstock

Reflecting on National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, one individual's battle against outdated HIV laws and deep-seated stigma highlights the urgent need for change and compassion.

According to the CDC, after more than 40 years of HIV research and significant biomedical advancements to treat and prevent HIV transmission, many state laws are still outdated and do not reflect our current understanding of HIV. As of 2022, 35 states have laws that criminalize HIV exposure. Additionally, despite the fact that Blacks represent just over 20% of the population in the South, we represent more than 50% of people living with HIV in the same region. While these facts and figures share the broader context, allow me to personalize these statistics with my own struggle to overcome them.

This past winter, I experienced a joy many Americans take for granted: I spent the holidays surrounded by loved ones. After several years, I was able to gather for a holiday dinner with family, friends, and a roof over my head. I also felt grateful for my fellow activists who joined me in the fight to modernize Tennessee’s HIV criminal laws.

When I was 25 years old, I was in a relationship with a guy for about a year. Our breakup was mutual. But afterward, he contacted the police and filed a report saying that I didn’t tell him that I was HIV+. This was a crime in Tennessee. I believe that he must have done this for revenge; he knew my HIV status. I was receiving regular HIV care, and never tested positive.

The police arrested me at my job. Being in jail, having a $100,000 bond I wasn’t nearly able to afford, and accused of a crime that I did not commit was the most terrifying time of my life. I had no one to bail me out. Worse, my father was in the hospital dying of brain cancer. I did not know what to do, and, like many others in the same situation, I was scared. I took a plea deal for three years of probation and was released from jail. While behind bars, my father passed away, and was barely able to attend the funeral. But I was grateful to have this ordeal behind me.

Or so I thought.

Shortly after starting work again, I got a phone call from my new probation officer. She told me that I had to register as a sex offender. My world stopped.. When I think of a ‘sex offender,’ I envision a person who has sexually abused children. However, in states like Tennessee, the 2022 bar for being a sex offender was quite low. You could become a sex offender just for being someone who, like me, is HIV+.

As a sex offender, you have to follow certain rules and requirements. You have to take classes for sex offenders. You can’t be around kids, and you can’t be within 1,000 feet of a school, daycare, or anywhere children will be. When you see a child in a grocery store, you must go in the opposite direction. You even have to pay an annual $150 fee to remain on the registry. I would never have taken the plea if I’d known that was part of the deal.

My cousin’s a senior in high school this year, and I want to go to his graduation. I want to see him walk across that stage. He’s an athlete, and I would have loved to watch him play. But I couldn’t. The stigma around HIV and AIDS is so severe that it was weaponized in a court of law and used against the Black community in Tennessee, where resources to combat HIV/AIDS pale in comparison to other demographics.

Change is needed. And, since that day, I have committed myself to fighting against this stigma.

One of the organizations that I am honored to work with in that fight is the National AIDS Memorial. Sharing the story of AIDS to protect future communities from harm, discrimination, and stigma, lines up perfectly with my newfound purpose. Last Spring, the National AIDS Memorial worked with the Southern AIDS Coalition and Gilead Sciences to take the AIDS Memorial Quilt across the South. Considered the largest community folk art project in the world, the Quilt honors lives lost to AIDS through panels stitched together by loved ones. They brought Quilt panels honoring Black lives lost to Tennessee to humanize the epidemic and fight for change in the South, where HIV rates still rival those of many developing countries.

Around this same time, Nashville CARES, a Tennessee nonprofit providing comprehensive HIV/AIDS services, filed a bill to amend the law that put me and countless others in prison. Through their fight and efforts of groups, including the National AIDS Memorial, the Tennessee HIV Modernization Coalition, and the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, the state’s HIV criminalization laws were changed in July 2023. The names of those like myself, whose lives were uprooted by stigma, were removed from the sex offender list.

While refreshing to think about all of the progress made in the past year, exploring the lack of bodily autonomy that derails the lives of so many, particularly in communities of color, is heart-wrenching. The conversation is reigniting my desire to fight for those facing unbearable stigma for being themselves.

On National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, we remember all of those in our community that we’ve lost to this ongoing epidemic and those who continue to face discrimination and lack of access to care. Let us keep fighting so that future generations will not have to fight in the ways that we have. I look forward to continuing the fight against this disease and the devastating stigma that follows it.

Lashanda Salinas is an active member of the Tennessee HIV Modernization Coalition, a Health Not Prisons advocate, and a member of The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation Council of Justice Leaders. She is also the inaugural 2023 National AIDS Memorial Hope and Inspiration Award recipient.

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