Ivanka Trump and Tiger Mandino: HIV Criminalization, Policing and Race in the Covid19 era
I read news last night that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner’s children had withdrawn from their DC school after administrators raised concerns about their adherence to Covid19 precautions.
With more than 244,000 Americans dead and rising from the novel coronavirus, health experts continue to plead for people to adhere to their guidelines and yet most American continue to claim their freedom not to. This personal freedom argument is even championed by President Trump (and his family) generally refusing to wear a mask, despite the authorities’ recommendations which resulted in the above-mentioned decision.
Very few places have started to fine people not wearing a face mask. Only in September did NYC announced it would fine people $1,000 for not wearing masks where required as the positive coronavirus test rate in the city started spiking again. And while there has been talk about criminalizing the “reckless” or deliberate transmission of Covid19, it has fortunately not been the case.
In the context of the mass transmission of Covid19, it raises the question of why would HIV transmission be criminalized but Covid19 not? Why is there such a laissez-faire approach to Covid19 transmission?
The reason is because the US is punitive when it comes to the bodies of those it feels the need to control, in the case of HIV homosexuals and black people. It is impossible not to be reminded of the interconnection between HIV criminalization, racism, the fetishization of black bodies and our punitive society which all came into play in the 2013 trial of Michael Johnson, a gay black man, known as “Tiger Mandino” online, ultimately condemned to 30 years in jail in Missouri for exposing his partners to HIV.
I have written a few times about HIV criminalization, a trend that is on the rise globally, not on the decline. Today 68 countries still criminalize HIV non-disclosure, exposure, or transmission, and at the end of 2017, prosecutions had been reported in 69 countries — with the US, Canada, Belarus and Russia having the largest numbers. In the US, 34 states and 2 territories have specific laws that criminalize the alleged potential exposure, non-disclosure, or potential transmission of HIV. In June 2019, I hosted several activists at the United Nations for a panel on the topic (read summary here) and in April 2020, I interviewed long-time HIV activist Sean Strub for Out Leadership on the topic (see the replay here).
In this two instances, we discussed the case of Michael Johnson who was arrested in October 2013 for “recklessly” transmitting HIV to two men and exposing four others to it. Johnson is black, and four of the six men were white. Some of the police reports, like that of Serbian exchange student Filip Cukovic are online. Kucovic famously testified during the trial that he was very attracted to Johnson “because they don’t have many black people in his country”. Subsequently, the all straight, almost exclusively white jury condemned Johnson to 30 years. In July 2019, Michael Johnson was released from jail after his sentence was overturned after an appeal court
HIV law, is still understood by many, as offering just punishment for behavior that can help transmit the virus. Yet, it is now becoming even clearer in the context of Covid19 that these laws were actually intended to “punish” homosexuals and people of color who disproportionately suffer the brunt of the HIV epidemic in the United States.
President-elect Joe Biden has indicated in his campaign that he will support the REPEAL HIV Discrimination Act, sponsored by Rep. Barbara Lee (you can read the full bill here). We know the criminalization of disease transmission is not beneficial to public health and it is time to end HIV criminalization.