Organizational Sign-on Statement in Response to Michael Johnson Sentencing

Joint Statement on the Sentencing of Michael L. Johnson                                                                                                                    

Counter Narrative Project/Positive Women’s Network (PWN-USA)/HIV Prevention Justice Alliance/ National Center for Lesbian Rights

On Monday July 13, 2015, Michael L. Johnson was sentenced to 30½ years in prison (a concurrent sentence) after being convicted of “recklessly infecting a partner with HIV” and “recklessly exposing partners to the virus.” We are outraged by this sentencing and Johnson's incarceration. This represents a failure of the justice system and a blatant manifestation of structural violence in the lives of Black gay men.

The State of Missouri was able to convict Michael Johnson without having to prove that he had any intent to infect his sexual partners nor demonstrate that he was in fact the person who transmitted HIV to his sexual partners. We are outraged by the criminalization, arrests and imprisonment of those prosecuted under HIV criminalization laws. We will continue to fight for Michael, to repeal HIV criminalization laws, to dismantle the Prison Industrial Complex, and to end the stigma and violence perpetrated upon people living with HIV by these laws. With this mission in mind, we are calling for the following:

The Right for People Living with HIV to choose if, when, and how they disclose

HIV disclosure is not safe under every circumstance. People with HIV may face risks ranging from loss of employment to personal humiliation, custody battles, and violence resulting from disclosure. In addition, the burden of proving disclosure rests on the person living with HIV, not her/his partner. While we are committed to helping create a world where disclosure of HIV status is safe, we reject the notion that disclosure of HIV status should be coerced by the State. Laws criminalizing alleged non-disclosure do not make it easier to disclose, and do not protect people from acquiring HIV.

An HIV prevention policy that relies on disclosure of HIV status fails to account for the fact that data shows a person is more likely to contract HIV from a sexual partner who is unaware of their HIV positive status and that effective care and treatment for people living with HIV reduces the likelihood of transmission to almost zero. The best approach for those who are HIV-negative or of unknown HIV status is to practice self-efficacy and care – an approach which could include prevention strategies such as: (1) Learning how HIV and other STDs are transmitted and effective ways to prevent contracting the virus (2) Taking PrEP (3) Using condoms (4) Getting tested with partners for HIV and other STDs (5) Engaging in lower risk sexual activities (6) Identifying support and resources to leave unhealthy relationships that don't support protecting oneself (7) Confronting insecurities that lead oneself to seek validation by engaging in higher risk sexual behavior.

Today, HIV is no longer a near certain death sentence. With timely diagnosis and proper treatment HIV has become a manageable chronic disease similar to diabetes. People living with HIV can and are living long, healthy, and wonderful lives. And yet, the stigma remains. The truth is that criminalization of HIV is not really about our fear of HIV itself but the stigma that is attached to it. Those of us who are not living with HIV fear that if we contract HIV that we will suffer a lifetime of discrimination and rejection. Given this fear, those of us who are HIV negative should understand why someone who is living with HIV would not disclose her or his HIV status. Therefore, the real target is HIV stigma, including institutionalized stigma which manifests in laws and policies such as HIV criminalization.

Advocacy Against HIV Criminalization is Advocacy Against Mass Incarceration

HIV is a human rights issue, and criminalization of people living with HIV is a social justice issue. Resisting the Prison Industrial Complex means understanding how inequities in the HIV epidemic and sentencing disparities within the criminal justice system interface with laws that criminalize people with HIV. HIV criminalization laws serve as a means of expanding the categories of people subject to imprisonment, by virtue of an immutable characteristic-positive HIV status. In effect, this creates a biological underclass. HIV criminalization does not provide solutions nor will throwing people into prison lower HIV acquisition rates.

HIV criminalization is another manifestation of a broader agenda which has attempted to control the bodies, the sexuality, and the desires of queer and trans people and cisgender women, especially those who are low income and/or from communities of color. This is the same agenda that plays out in attempts to control women’s access to abortion and contraception and reproductive decisions. This not only includes denying low income women abortion services through Medicaid but the criminalizing of pregnant women who are drug users. The sexual and reproductive rights of communities of color, LGBTQ folks, and women has been policed and criminalized throughout the history of this country. Policies based on restricting our body autonomy, stirring up homo- and transphobia, and spreading HIV-related fears have never been and will never be just or sound public policy.

Alternatives to Criminalization: Towards Restorative Justice and Healing

We acknowledge the HIV epidemic has caused immense pain to many in our communities. As a society, we must be intentional about supporting and providing healing for those who have been affected by HIV. We firmly believe that HIV criminalization does not serve to meet these ends. Prisons will not save us. Criminalization is never a solution. Instead, we call for a wholistic approach based on restorative justice principles. Rather than resorting to criminalizing sexuality of people living with HIV, we should treat HIV as an issue of public health, individual health, and human rights and dignity. We must ensure that everyone who is living with HIV (and those who are not) have access to quality and affordable healthcare. As stated above, data shows that suppressing the viral load of a person living with HIV through effective care and treatment reduces the chances of HIV transmission to zero, even if condoms are not used. If states like Missouri are seriously concerned about reducing HIV transmission, they would do better to focus their resources on ensuring their residents living with HIV have access to high-quality, nonstigmatizing, trauma-informed, affordable healthcare. Instead they perpetuate a political agenda that cuts lives short and violates human rights, especially for people of color and those living in poverty, by refusing to expand Medicaid.

Even more importantly than individual actions, we must push for societal changes to the norms and stereotypes that inhibit sexual autonomy and encourage higher risk behaviors. We must advocate for sex education that challenges dominant paradigms around gender norms and heteronormativity. Thus, comprehensive sex education rooted in modern medical science, sex positivity, and harm reduction, and inclusive of all sexualities and genders is crucial. We must address systemic discrimination that places people at risk for housing, food and employment insecurity. We must address systemic discrimination that places people at risk for housing, food and employment insecurity. We should demand media accountability on pathologized portrayals of Black, brown, and queer bodies and sexuality.

We should demand media accountability on pathologized portrayals of Black, brown, and queer bodies and sexuality.

Demanding accountability

HIV criminalization laws are intricately tied to histories of racism, sexism, and homophobia. These forces in the present continue to enact injustice and perpetuate these laws. For this reason, we call for greater engagement of LGBT and racial justice organizations and leaders in HIV decriminalization advocacy. We know various local, state, and national organizations and individuals have already stepped up to the plate, but more boots on the ground are needed to fight back against these laws. LGBT and racial justice organizations must take more leadership around this issue by resourcing advocacy, defense litigation, attempts to repeal these laws at the state level, and drawing attention to HIV criminalization as a practice grounded in homophobia, racism, and sexual and reproductive oppression.

We are heartbroken at what has happened to Michael Johnson, but we are no less determined to fight for him, fight for his freedom, and the freedom of all our brothers and sisters incarcerated under HIV criminalization laws. We are also equally committed to standing in solidarity with all movements committed to ending oppression from the dominant culture of policing and criminalizing vulnerable communities. Together we become more powerful. We must resist. We will resist. We resist.

Black is not a crime.

LGBTQ is not a crime.

HIV is not a crime

Signed:

Charles Stephens

Executive Director

Counter Narrative Project

Naina Khanna

Executive Director

Positive Women's Network - USA

Suraj Madoori

Manager

HIV Prevention Justice Alliance

Tyrone Hanley

Policy Counsel

National Center for Lesbian Rights

To sign your organization on to this statement, click this link 

We Shall Not Be Removed: Black Gay Men Respond to the Sentencing of Michael Johnson

1868670_1407024563.5478 May 15, 2015

Today at Michael Johnson's trial, the jury recommended a 30 year sentence. Yesterday, after just a few days of testimony and only two hours of deliberation, a nearly all-white jury convicted Michael Johnson on one count of recklessly infecting a partner with HIV, one count of attempting to recklessly infect a partner with HIV, and three counts of recklessly exposing partners to HIV. We are saddened and enraged by what seems to have been a lackluster defense of Johnson, but ultimately we are not surprised. There are many people in this country who still believe, out of ignorance or cruelty, that people with HIV are pariahs who we all need to be protected from. But Michael Johnson is a part of our community and he is not disposable. Far too many young Black gay men receive an HIV diagnosis in this country, and nearly one in three can expect to in their lifetimes. And Missouri’s solution, to a problem they helped create, is prison.

Contracting HIV isn’t Michael’s fault. For decades, so few resources have gone toward a community based HIV prevention and treatment response for Black gay men. This has created a situation where contracting HIV feels almost inevitable. It is ironic that the state of Missouri would convict Michael Johnson of criminal transmission out of a claim of concern for “the public.” If Missouri has such concern about the health and wellbeing of its residents, why won’t the Missouri state legislature even expand Medicaid—a very easy way to ensure nearly all people with and at risk for HIV could have access to health care? After the trial is over, it is very likely that the young men accusing Johnson will continue living in a state that will do very little to ensure they have access to HIV prevention services and basic access to health care. Johnson will be in prison, and the accusers who are currently HIV negative will likely remain highly vulnerable to HIV infection. That’s the state’s fault—not Michael Johnson.

It is hard to ignore the racial optics of this case. A very muscular and attractive Black man stood accused by mostly white men, in a small county, and was tried in front of a nearly all-white jury. Whether in health care, or the courtroom, there is no justice for Black gay men in either location.

We want to reiterate that our support for Johnson will continue, whether or not he disclosed his status to the accusers, and despite whatever sentence he receives. We will continue to fight until he is released, and until all such laws are removed from Missouri and across the country. We will continue to work to support Michael through any appeals, and his time in prison, however long it may be.

But in the meantime, this is the agenda we will be actively pursuing:

1.Support Michael Johnson while he’s in prison, continue to raise awareness about his case, work to support any potential appeals or strategies to reduce his sentence or overturn this ruling altogether.

2.Continue to dialog with Black gay men around the country in person and through social media about the importance of opposing such laws.

3.Repeal of the laws that criminalize HIV exposure and transmission, in Missouri and nationwide.

4.Challenge our allies in Black progressive organizations, criminal justice reform, HIV prevention and treatment, and the LGBT movement to take more of an active role in challenging HIV criminalization.

5.Develop more capacity for Black gay men’s grassroots organizing.

We know that many people still remain incredibly frightened of an HIV diagnosis, which undergirds the logic behind many of these laws. We also know that this country has an all-too vivid imagination when it comes to ideas of out-of-control Black sexuality, and a commitment to prisons and punitive responses to challenges. This allows state actors to be absolved of responsibility for creating the conditions that lead many Black gay men to become HIV positive, or imprisoned, or both.

We will fight until Johnson is released, and until we are all free.

Sincerely,

Adrian Ogle

Akil Patterson

Alvin Agarrat

Amir Dixon

andré m. carrington, Ph.D.

Anthony Antoine McWilliams

Anthony Galloway

Anthony Thompson

Aunsha Hall-Everett

Brandon Dykes

Brian Alston-Carter

Bryan C. Jones

Bummah Ndeh

Charles Stephens

Corey Yarbrough

Cornelius A. Wilson

Cornelius Mabin

Craig Washington

Daniel D Driffin

Darius Bost

Darron Marble

Darwin Thompson

David Malebranche

David Roscoe Moore

Derrick D. Matthews

Derrick Merkerson

Devin Barrington-Ward

Devin D. Moss

Dr. Jeffrey McCune

E.Taylor Doctor

Eddie Wiley

eric o. reece

Ernest Hardy

Errol L Fields

Gavin Morrow-Hall

Geoffrey Winder

Isaiah Wilson

Jafari Sinclaire Allen

James Lester

Jonathan

Jonathan Jacob Moore

Justin Smith

Kali Lindsey

Keith R. Green

Kenneth LeBlue

Kenneth Moore

Kenneth Pass

Kenyon Farrow

Kevin Q. Ewing

Leo Moore

Marco M. Brown

Marquez Rhyne

Martez Smith

Mathew Rodriguez

Matthew Rose

Max Smith

Michael Blair Franklin Jr.

Michael C. Webb, Jr.

Michael Everett

Michael J. Brewer

Michael Tikili

PrestonMitchum

Raul Posas

Raymond Thomas

Reggie Dunbar II

Rev. Bertram Johnosn

Ricardo D. Wynn

Robert W. Williams, III

Ronald G. Murray,MPA, LSW

S.Wakefield

Stephaun E. Wallace

Steven G Fullwood

Tabias Wilson

Terence Pleasant McCune

Tyrell manning

Tyrone Hanley

For more info, contact: freeblackgaymen@gmail.com

Resources:

http://www.hivlawandpolicy.org/initiatives/positive-justice-project

http://www.amfar.org/heavy-impact-of-hiv-aids-on-black-gay-men-us/

http://thecounternarrative.org/2015/05/07/an-open-letter-to-michael-johnson/

An Open Letter to Michael Johnson

1868670_1407024563.5478 Dear Michael,

We, Black gay men, write this letter to you out of love. We can only imagine the burdens you have had to carry personally: experiences of isolation, shame, rejection and moral judgment. But we want you to know that in our lives we have had to carry those burdens as well.

We write this letter to you, understanding the actions taken against you have come at the expense of your humanity. And we write this letter to you, acknowledging that you are a part of our community. You are our brother and we support you.

There are less and less spaces dedicated to Black gay men. And our bodies are being beaten, policed, and pushed into prisons. Yet, we remain steadfast in the belief that our bodies, desires, intimate relationships and communities are not criminal. We are loving, living, and worthy Black people.

We are aware that you have been charged with felony HIV-exposure in Missouri for allegedly not disclosing your HIV-status to your sexual partners. However, we also know that HIV criminalization laws unfairly impact Black people and stigmatize people living with HIV. HIV criminalization laws push people living with HIV further and further away from HIV treatment and care and make HIV prevention efforts more difficult. As Black gay men, we are deeply impacted by HIV; and these laws harm us and damage our relationships and communities.

HIV criminalization laws are unjust to people living with HIV. Under these laws, people living with HIV are expected to share their HIV status, even though our society is one that stigmatizes and discriminates against people living with HIV. Through HIV criminalization laws people are forced to disclose and to not consider the serious consequences of disclosure.

HIV should be treated as a public health issue not as a criminal one. Legally requiring disclosure privileges the lives of White people not living with HIV over Black people who are living with HIV.

These laws feed into stereotypes that assume Black gay men are irresponsible and hypersexual. For you, your accusers saw your Black and masculine body as a site of ultimate sexual pleasure, until they had to deal with you as a whole person. At that moment you became a problem and were disposable to them.

HIV criminalization laws burden people living with HIV to take on the sole responsibility of sexual encounters. Regardless of intention or disclosure, there is a shared responsibility among sexual partners. Opening up about your HIV status is a personal decision that should not be mandated or enforced. Disclosing your HIV-status should be about self-reflection and speaking your truth. Disclosure should not be about protecting people who are not living with HIV from transmission. And disclosure should not be about punishing people living with HIV who do not disclose.

We do not care about whether or not you disclosed, or any intention you may or may not have had. We care about you—your life matters. HIV is not a crime and you should not be in prison.

Until you are free, none of us are free. As you are impacted, we are all impacted. We see ourselves in you. Your story is connected to us all and is evidence that Black gay men need each other. Through all of the suffering, pain, and trauma, we need each other to heal and survive. We also need each other to share our joy, our laughter, and our beauty. Even as important, our community can only heal if you heal and survive too.

So we send you our love during your time of need. We want you to know that we are here in solidarity with you. We are sending you positive energy and universal force to act on your behalf. We will continue to send our energies to you with faith that you will be victorious throughout this fight.

Moreover, we are concerned about your health and well-being, how you are feeling, and how this has affected you. We are here for you. If there are other ways that we can provide you some support, please let us know. We want you to know there are people who care about what is happening to you. And we will continue to maintain contact with you, regardless of what happens with your case.

Therefore, while you have been in prison for over a year and half and placed in administrative segregation for over 60 days, we recognize these injustices and write this letter to you. While you are being framed as a monster, we continuously value your humanity and write this letter to you.

Lastly, we, Black gay men, write this letter in hopes that it gives you and others in our community the strength to work towards a world in which we are all free.

We are you and we love you.

Sincerely,

Kenneth Pass

Charles Stephens

Martez Smith

Darnell L. Moore

Craig Washington

Damian J. Denson

David Roscoe Moore

Tyrone Hanley

Tyrell Manning

Brandon Dykes

Kenyon Farrow

Jeffrey McCune

Steven G. Fullwood

Cory Bradley

L. Lamar Wilson

André Carrington

Clarence Singleton

Justin Smith

Vaughn E. Taylor-Akutagawa

Antoine J. Rogers

Anthony Thompson

Matthew Rose

Michael J. Brewer

Jonathan Paul Lucas

Jamie Allen

George Holifield

Bummah Ndeh

Marcus Lee

Ramon Johnson

Daniel McRath

Anthony Bond

Sean Sheppheard

Kieran Scarlett

Stephaun E. Wallace

Jamal Lewis

David J. Malebranche

Devin Barrington Ward

Blake A. Rowley

Mark J. Tuggle

Lamont Scales

Drew-Shane Daniels

Anthony Antoine McWilliams

Gavin Morrow-Hall

James Lester

Phillip Williams

Rodney A. Brown

Ricardo Wynn

Cornelius Mabin

Darius Bost

Shaun Little

Carl Graves

Darron Marble

Reggie Dunbar II

Jafari Sinclaire Allen

L. Michael Gipson

Christopher Moten

John Keene

Jonathan Moore

Derek Johnson

Brad Walrond

Seven Hobby

S.G. Richmond

Marvell L. Terry, II

Eddie Wiley

Isaiah R. Wilson

Alfred White

Max Smith

Preston Mitchum

Charles E. Matiella

Darryl Hart

Steven-Emmanuel Martinez

Akil Patterson

Johnnie Kornegay

Khalid Idawu

Justin T. Rush

Tabias Wilson

Lance Powell

Robert F. Reid-Pharr

Bryan Webster

Jason L. Walker

Rev. Rodney McKenzie, Jr.

Raymond Thomas

Shedrick Davis

JaMel M. Nelson

Adrian Ogle

Michael Tikili

Elijah Bell-Clarke

Maurice Franklin

Deontez Wimbley

Riko A. Boone

Monte J Wolfe

Raul Posas

Charles Nero

Joshua Johnson

Victor Scotti, Jr.

Lee Brown

Bryan C. Jones

Marlon M. Bailey

Derrick D. Matthews

Francisco L. White

Anthony Charles Galloway

Brian L. Alston-Carter

Michael Lawrence

Daniel Driffin

Leo Moore

Robert W. Williams, III

Cornelius White

Devin D. Moss

Derrick Merkerson

Michael Ward

Jason Saunders

Kenneth LeBlue

Rev. Bertram Johnson

Marco M. Brown

Michael Franklin

Kevin Q. Ewing

Antoine Craigwell