Robert D. Suttle from SERO (Serostigma & Empowerment Resource Organization) tells his personal story of HIV criminalization and discrimination as a person of colour during the PCB ‘HIV and Enabling Legal Environments’ thematic.
My name is Robert Suttle. I am not a criminal. I am not a sex offender; but the state of Louisiana says I am. I was convicted for failing to disclose my HIV status to a former male partner, who later went to the police and pressed charges against me when we broke up. I never lied to him about my HIV status.
The South in the United States, where I am from, has the highest incarceration rate of anywhere in the world. People of color, especially young black males, are at the highest risk of incarceration and they are at the highest risk of acquiring HIV. Both factors represent a terrible injustice, but when you add criminalization, it becomes an injustice of historic proportions.
In my case, the prosecutors and judicial system didn’t know much about HIV or the routes and risks of transmission. When they decided to prosecute me, there was no consideration of science or shared responsibility of whether or not HIV was actually transmitted.
Where I am from, young gay black men often get the maximum sentence, no matter what the charge or circumstances. Had I gone to trial I’d faced up to ten years in prison. That was a risk I would not take. So, I agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of two years’ probation.
But the judicial system didn’t even know its own laws. When I reported to my probation officer, I was told I also had to register as a sex offender. Then the court “resentenced me” because sex offender registration in Louisiana requires serving time in prison. I spent six months in a Louisiana prison. I did get HIV treatment in prison, but sometimes it was unreliable or irregular in ways that could harm my health or facilitate resistance. Privacy in prison about one’s HIV status is a joke.
For the next 15 years I must register as a sex offender in Louisiana. On my driver’s license, underneath my photograph, it says in large red capital letters “SEX OFFENDER”.
No matter what the government says, I know who and what I am. I am lucky, because I have a strong faith in God and strong support from my family and friends. I am now employed at my local AIDS service organization as an HIV prevention case worker, working with other young African American men who have sex with men.
But what am I supposed to say to those young men considering getting tested, when they express concern about getting arrested as a reason not to get tested? Or for those who know they are positive, as a reason not to disclose? I can’t tell them it will all be ok. I must tell them about the law and the risk they take when they get tested or disclose.
Where I am from, HIV criminalization is just another way to lock up young black men. It drives stigma and it drives the epidemic; we will not ever beat AIDS in Louisiana as long as we continue to criminalize those who have HIV. Thank you.