It can hap­pen in Ge­or­gia

GA Voice - - News -

His dick was a lethal weapon, at least ac­cord­ing to Mis­souri state law. But be­fore Michael John­son aka “Tiger Mandingo” was sen­tenced in May to 30.5 years in prison for felony HIV ex­po­sure and reck­lessly in­fect­ing a part­ner with HIV, he was a fan­tasy re­al­ized. Big, black, ath­letic and de­sir­able—un­til his ad­mir­ers and law en­force­ment learned that those at­tributes also be­longed to some­one liv­ing with HIV.

It was a per­fect storm cen­tered on the com­plex­ity of race, class and HIV crim­i­nal­iza­tion that a group of At­lanta black gay men re­fused to let John­son en­dure alone.

“Dear Michael: Let­ters of Sup­port and En­cour­age­ment,” held on Nov. 11 at the Phillip Rush Cen­ter, was the site of a hand­writ­ten let­ter cam­paign for John­son, spear­headed by Counter Nar­ra­tive Project, a black gay men’s me­dia ad­vo­cacy group founded by writer and ac­tivist Charles Stephens.

“There are 530,000 black gay men in this coun­try. Michael is not alone. None of us are. He needs to know that there is a com­mu­nity stand­ing be­hind him,” wrote Stephens on Face­book.

An­thony An­toine, a lo­cal ac­tivist and HIV coun­selor, was one of sev­eral gay men who showed up to pen a per­sonal let­ter and to stand in sol­i­dar­ity with those who be­lieve the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem that con­victed John­son had failed him.

“One black gay man to an­other, I wanted him to know that I cared, that his story and the im­pli­ca­tions mat­ter to me and many,” says An­toine. “I sim­ply wanted him to know that he’s not alone.”

Whose re­spon­si­bil­ity is it, any­way?

Ac­tivist and per­for­mance artist Mick­yel Brad­ford (who prefers fe­male pro­nouns) says she had to sup­port John­son af­ter be­ing faced with the dilemma of whether or not to alert au­thor­i­ties af­ter en­gag­ing in sex

Novem­ber 27, 2015

Above: Counter Nar­ra­tive Project and lo­cal activists show their sup­port for Michael John­son at The Phillip Rush Cen­ter. Right: Michael John­son aka ‘Tiger Mandingo.’ (Cour­tesy pho­tos) with a HIV-pos­i­tive part­ner who failed to dis­close his sta­tus.

“I did not ask his sta­tus be­fore he fucked me and he did not dis­close his sta­tus to me,” says Brad­ford. “I didn’t sero-con­vert be­cause he was un­de­tectable.”

Brad­ford says she chose not to have her for­mer part­ner ar­rested, al­though her best friend urged her to do so.

“Many peo­ple see law en­force­ment as the only pos­si­ble so­lu­tion. I can­not let my part­ner be­come Michael.”

How is one part­ner’s re­spon­si­bil­ity for self­care de­pen­dent upon the dis­clo­sure of an­other in an en­counter of mu­tual con­sent? That was the ques­tion asked by AID At­lanta’s Craig Wash­ing­ton in an Oct. 9 op-ed in the At­lanta Voice. If the swift con­dem­na­tion of John­son’s ac­tions in the court of pub­lic opin­ion was any in­di­ca­tion, he was the “worst type of ho­mo­sex­ual:” “a preda­tory mon­ster,” “an HIV-pos­i­tive Buck,” and as a per­son liv­ing with HIV, he was ul­ti­mately re­spon­si­ble for en­sur­ing his part­ner’s safety by re­fus­ing to en­gage in con­dom­less sex. An­toine dis­agrees.

“None of us have a gift cer­tifi­cate to leave pro­tec­tion of a neg­a­tive sta­tus, per­sonal preven­tion of trans­mis­sion up to any­one else, not even the law, HIV is 100 per­cent pre­ventable,” he says.

“The idea of onus or per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity is the same frame­work used by peo­ple who talk about sag­ging pants or black on black crime,” says Brad­ford. “The onus is on the state, on the gov­ern­ment, on the in­sti­tu­tions that make it pos­si­ble for cit­i­zens to still be in an HIV epi­demic with no end in sight.”

It’s not far-fetched to be­lieve that the next Michael John­son is liv­ing among us in Ge­or­gia. Ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion, Ge­or­gia ranked fifth in the na­tion for the high­est num­ber of new HIV di­ag­noses in 2013. And while other racial groups have seen a de­cline in new HIV in­fec­tions, African-Amer­i­can gay and bi­sex­ual men con­tinue to be se­verely af­fected. Ad­vo­cates for the re­peal of HIV crim­i­nal­iza­tion laws, such as Ge­or­gia Code 16-560, say such laws do more harm than good.

“Laws crim­i­nal­iz­ing peo­ple liv­ing with HIV are all about stigma, and the per­verse de­sire for peo­ple in power to put peo­ple with less power be­hind bars,” says Stephens.

Gre­gory R. Nevins, Coun­sel and Em­ploy­ment Fairness Pro­gram Strate­gist at Lambda Le­gal, tells Ge­or­gia Voice that “the law is a pub­lic health dis­as­ter.”

“Since the law ap­plies to only those who learn of an HIV-pos­i­tive test, those who never get tested can­not be pros­e­cuted—an­other fea­ture of the law that is com­pletely at odds with pub­lic health ob­jec­tives,” he says.

“Peo­ple who are HIV-pos­i­tive have been pros­e­cuted and sen­tenced for years sim­ply for spit­ting on some­one,” says An­toine. “Why aren’t we all out­raged by this?”

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