Nicholas Rhoades was sentenced to 25 years in prison and became a registered tier-one sex offender because he had sex, used a condom, and is HIV positive with an undetectable viral load. Donald Bogardus, who is also HIV positive with an undetectable viral load, faced similar sentencing and felony charges. Neither men transmitted HIV to their partners, but that was irrelevant, because Iowa is one of more than 30 states that criminalizes HIV.
That is, until last week, when Governor Terry Branstad (IA-R) signed into law updated, modernized HIV transmission legislation. This made Iowa the first state to repeal outdated HIV criminalization, replacing it with a transmission statute that is grounded in science, public health, and a commitment to reducing stigma.
At the first-ever HIV is Not a Crime Conference, held this week at Grinnell College in Iowa, Bogardus and Rhoades were freed from their GPS monitoring devices with bolt cutters by Attorney Dan L. Johnston and State Senator Matt McCoy, respectively. All in attendance looked on during the event's closing ceremony. It was an act of great symbolism, great triumph, and great new beginnings. Present at the historic conference was Sean Strub, Executive Director of the Sero Project, who organized the conference.
Also present at the conference were the president of Grinnell, advocate and My Fabulous Disease blogger Mark S. King, Sero Project assistant director Robert Suttle, GLAAD's national news intern Nicholas Coppola, and many of the grassroots organizers who worked to repeal Iowa's HIV criminalization, among other leading advocates. Senators McCoy and Steve Sodders spoke about how they were able to get a unanimous vote in Iowa's State Legislature to update their state's draconian HIV criminalization law. Sen. McCoy discussed the difficulties among his constituents, even in the gay community, to change the law. Sen. Sodders, who is also a law enforcement official in Iowa, spoke about how "intent" was an important part of the conversation.Threase Harms, CEO of an Iowa public affairs firm, had two members of the conference practice speaking with legislators.
While Rhoades and Bogardus now have the opportunity to begin new phases in their lives, others like Kerry Thomas in states like Idaho are not yet as lucky. Thomas spoke at the conference via a video call because he is currently serving the third of his 30 years in prison in Idaho. Thomas is incarcerated after having sex with a condom and an undetectable viral load. Watch his testimony below:
As policies are repealed one by one, and as person by person is released from cells and monitors, societal stigma and intersectional statistics remain. According to to a 2012 report by the BLACK AIDS Institute entitled "Back of the Line," Black gay men in the United States are at the highest risk of contracting HIV of any people in the world and HIV is twice as common among gay and bi men who are Black than gay and bi men who are white. Additionally, Black gay and bi men are less likely than white or Latino gay and bi men to live three years after developing AIDS. Indeed, leading HIV advocate Peter Staley argued just three months ago that HIV/AIDS related stigma is actually on the rise within the LGBT community.
Until the media, the full spectrum of the LGBT community, politicians, and allies take responsibility for combatting stigma and creating responsible policies, people who are HIV+ will remain chained—proverbially and literally.
Rhoades and Bogardus removing their monitoring devices and proudly proclaiming that #HIVisNotaCrime are positive and powerful steps. Importantly, they are not advocates' last.
Check out the photos taken by GLAAD at #HIVisNotaCrime:
Nicholas Rhoades and his removed ankle bracelet (L) standing with GLAAD's Nicholas Coppola (R)
Donald Bogardus holding his monitoring device
A screen projection about Kerry Thomas
Many advocates who have lead the movement to modernize Iowa's HIV-specific laws
Advocate Sean Strub, Senator Matt McCoy, and Senator Steve Sodders (left to right)