State Reps. Malcolm Kenyatta and Mary Isaacson (both D-Philadelphia) lead a hearing on Pennsylvania's HIV criminalization laws on Oct. 6, 2021. (Courtesy of Pennsylvania House of Representatives) HIV Decriminalization Hearing
State Reps. Malcolm Kenyatta and Mary Isaacson (both D-Philadelphia) lead a hearing on Pennsylvania's HIV criminalization laws on Oct. 6, 2021. (Courtesy of Pennsylvania House of Representatives)

A recent hearing on HIV criminalization laws in Pennsylvania shed light on the stigma those living with HIV are forced to endure.

If you’re not among the Pennylvanians living with HIV, you’re likely unaware of the state laws that criminalize actions through HIV-specific statutes and regulations. In the eyes of the law, those living with HIV are different from everyone else, simply because they have a chronic disease.

“They’re being criminalized for conduct that, but for their medical issue, would not be criminal,” said Steven Bryson, SERO legal fellow with the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania. 

Pennsylvanians living with HIV are painfully aware of the unjust impact of Pennsylvania’s HIV criminalization laws and the stigma they carry. 

“HIV criminalization laws reduce people like me to our viral status,” said Michelle Troxell, Pennsylvania Co-chairperson of Positive Women’s Network USA.  “It is dehumanizing and disempowering.” 

Approximately 1.2 million Americans are currently living with HIV, according to data from HIV.gov. Gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men are most affected by HIV in the US. Black women also have been hit especially hard by the disease: 60% of new HIV infections among women from 2010-2016 were among Black women, even though Black women made up 13% of the female population, according to a report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

State health officials estimate that approximately 36,000 Pennsylvanians are currently living with HIV. Roughly  73% are male and 27% are female. Nearly half of the Pennsylvanians living with HIV are Black, while 30% are white, and 16% are Hispanic/Latinx.

Bryson and Troxell were among the advocates giving voice to all of them through their testimony at a recent hearing to raise awareness about the Pennsylvania laws that criminalize people living with HIV. State Reps. Mary Isaacson and Malcolm Kenyatta (both D-Philadelphia), who head the state House Democratic Policy Committee, led the hearing, which was prompted by the introduction of bills that included the criminalization of people with HIV.

One such piece of legislation looks to criminalize people who spit on police officers and includes extra penalties for people living with communicable diseases. The bill mentions HIV and hepatitis B, even though neither is spread through saliva. 

“The laws in Pennsylvania are very outdated in the way they view people with HIV,” Bryson said. “They don’t match the science and what we know now.” 

Pennsylvania is one of 22 states that has HIV-specific statutes and regulations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state does not have laws that mandate HIV-status disclosure prior to sexual contact, though the state can use more general criminal laws like aggravated assault to prosecute for nondisclosure.

Pennsylvania also has HIV-specific sentencing enhancements for prisoners and sex workers. 

There is no guidance from the state attorney general’s office regarding Pennsylvania’s HIV criminalization laws, so filing charges is left to the discretion of local prosecutors. 

“We know the vast difference in the mentality of prosecutors from county to county,” Bryson said. “The exposure to HIV education is different throughout the state. It is very much up to each individual prosecutor as to how they proceed and pursue such cases.”

Bryson said it was fair to wonder if a regional bias was at play when Julie Graham, a 33-year-old nurse from Carlisle, was charged for not disclosing her HIV-positive status to a man prior to beginning a sexual relationship with him in 2011.     

Graham carries an undetectable viral load, which makes it virtually impossible to transmit HIV through unprotected sex or endanger anyone through her job. She began dating the man in 2012, and had unprotected sex with him twice because he was not at risk. 

After those encounters, Graham disclosed her status. The man was tested for HIV and his results were negative. They continued to have sex without a condom until Graham ended the relationship. He then pressed charges against Graham with the Pennsylvania State Police for not disclosing her HIV status, even though he tested negative for the virus and continued to have sex with her after she disclosed her status. She was charged with four crimes, including two felonies, based on his allegations.

What followed was a nightmare: Graham’s medical records were released to the state police. Her name, address, HIV-positive status, and criminal charges were reported by a local newspaper. She was indefinitely suspended from her job. She suffered emotionally and financially. 

Through the help of a lawyer and the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, Graham got the criminal charges expunged from her record and got her job back. But that didn’t change the inconsistency of Pennsylvania’s laws regarding HIV disclosure prior to sex or how they upended Graham’s life. Graham shared her story at the hearing.

“I have made a promise to myself to help others by telling my HIV positIve story so no one who is living with HIV will ever have to experience the hardships I have faced with HIV criminalization,” she said. “HIV criminalization damages lives and careers. It stays with a person the rest of their life.”

Isaccson praised Graham and Troxell for their testimony, and pledged to keep working toward HIV decriminlation in Pennsylvania.

“I support and applaud your courage and advocacy to testify,” Isaacson said. “Being HIV positive is not a crime and we must do better in supporting those in Pennsylvania who are living with HIV.”