I have been an HIV and AIDS activist for more than 20 years.
As the only openly HIV-positive public official in San Francisco, I applaud Gov. Jerry Brown for signing into law Senate Bill 239, which modernizes the outdated HIV criminalization laws in California. The bill, authored by Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and sponsored by Equality California, takes effect Jan. 1.
It will lift a weight off the shoulders of HIV-positive people, especially seniors in the LGBTQ community, who have lived for years with the fear of being convicted of a felony for sexual relations as an HIV-positive person.
Sixty percent of people with HIV living in San Francisco are over the age of 50. My constituents no longer need to live with the constant threat of being criminalized over their health status. The outdated laws that existed before SB 239 were created in the 1980s when the fear surrounding HIV was at its peak, little information about the virus existed and there were no effective treatments.
As a result, these laws created harsh punishments for spreading the virus—but in years since, they have disproportionately impacted vulnerable communities.
The enforcement was extremely arbitrary, often disproportionately affecting sex-workers or LGBTQ people. Simply being accused of attempting to infect someone with HIV, regardless of whether it was intentional or not, could result in jail time. In some cases, possessing HIV medications—or even condoms—could be used as evidence against the accused.
Over the last few decades, the medical and scientific understanding of HIV has improved. Now, when properly treated, the disease is virtually impossible to transmit. However, until now, the laws surrounding HIV discouraged people from getting tested and from taking lifesaving medications for fear of retribution and criminal charges.
A study funded by the Center for Disease Control found that 97 percent of gay men know their HIV status. But this heightened awareness added to the discrimination. Now that many of the people infected in the 1980’s are seniors, this unequal treatment has carried through into the communities in which they live, such as retirement communities or other places that are less exposed to HIV and AIDS education.
With SB 239, we are at a point where we truly can work toward ending this virus in California, not only through prevention, but also with treatment and education. I am thrilled that this new law will encourage more people to get tested and receive the treatment they need, and as a result, we can better work toward reaching zero new HIV infections, zero HIV-related deaths, and zero HIV stigma.
It is much more difficult to control the spread of HIV when the stigma brought on by laws that criminalize the disease create an atmosphere of fear and misinformation. If people are afraid to get diagnosed or afraid that people will see their medication and know that they are HIV positive, then they are more likely to go untreated and are more likely to further spread the disease.
With today’s treatments, there are ways to prevent the spread of HIV through both the treatment of those who are HIV positive and through preventative treatments for those who do not have the virus. With proper education in California, we are in a position to set an example for the rest of the country through our efforts to end HIV.
Thanks to SB 239, those who are HIV positive in California can breathe a little easier and feel more comfortable and safe when they seek treatment. I hope that as a state we can continue to set the bar higher and strive for an end to this virus and to any associated discrimination. HIV is no longer a death sentence; and thanks to SB 239 it is no longer a jail sentence.
Jeff Sheehy is a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.