February 1, 2021 at 10:39 pm EST | by Philip Van Slooten
Va. Senate committee approves HIV decriminalization bill
The Virginia Capitol (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Virginia Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill on Jan. 27 that would decriminalize HIV transmission in the state.

Senate Bill 1138, introduced by state Sens. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton) and Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), would repeal sections of the Virginia Code that imposes penalties, including incarceration, upon anyone who transmits HIV through sex or another means.

“These outdated, dangerous, and discriminatory laws disproportionately impact Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other persons of color,” said Equality Virginia Executive Director Vee Lamneck in a Jan. 28 press release. “To ensure an equitable state for Black and Brown individuals and to promote public health, it’s essential lawmakers pass SB 1138.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, Virginia is currently one of 37 states with laws that criminalize HIV exposure.

These laws are a relic from the early days of the epidemic when little was known about the virus’ transmission or how to treat it.

The CDC now states more than 30 years of research have shown that many state laws criminalize behaviors that cannot transmit HIV, do not apply the same standards to other treatable diseases, discourage HIV testing and are unequally enforced.

“Virginia’s current HIV laws are rooted in fear and racial biases,” said Deirdre Johnson, co-founder of the ECHO VA (Ending Criminalization of HIV and Overincarceration in Virginia) Coalition. “Criminalization increases stigma and harms marginalized communities. Data shows that these laws target and harm women of color, women who do sex work, and transgender women.”

LGBTQ individuals, people of color and sex workers are communities most likely to be impacted by HIV, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health. Black Virginians represent less than 20 percent of the state’s population, but they make up more 50 percent of people living with HIV.

The CDC reports that Virginia currently is one of 21 states with laws requiring people with HIV who are aware of their status to disclose their status to sex partners.

In the last two fiscal years seven Virginians were convicted of misdemeanors, and three of felonies, for having sex without disclosing their status, according to sentencing guidelines data included in the bill.

“Living with HIV should not be a crime,” McClellan said in a press release. “We know current laws deter testing and create additional barriers for vulnerable populations. HIV criminalization is a critical public health issue that lawmakers can help solve by passing SB 1138.”

© Copyright Brown, Naff, Pitts Omnimedia, Inc. 2021. All rights reserved.