Robert Suttle is a social justice educator focused on HIV decriminalization in the U.S. He is also a founding member of Sero, an advisor for HIV Justice Network’s Global Advisory Panel (GAP), and Chair, The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation’s Council of Justice Leaders.
Q: You have been a leader and activist in the HIV decriminalization movement for over a decade. How did you first become involved in this space?
In 2009, I was charged and convicted of a felony for failure to disclose my HIV status in the state of Louisiana. The charge was intentional exposure to the AIDS virus based on a claim made by a former partner. My life was forever changed because of my conviction, but it wasn’t until I got out of prison after serving a six-month sentence that I decided to figure out why it happened.
After my release, I found an online blog on HIV criminalization and as I read it, I thought, “Wow, this is what happened to me.” Through the blog, I connected with someone who had been involved in HIV advocacy for a long time. Since then, I have had several opportunities to share my personal experiences and eventually started defining my own leadership focused on eliminating HIV criminalization.
Becoming a leader in this movement is not something I expected because I was initially just looking for a way to help myself. But when I realized the magnitude of this issue, I knew I wanted to be involved and I’m glad to still be here today – not only to share my own experiences but also to uplift others and shed light on their stories.
Q: As part of the HIV Is Not A Crime campaign, you shared your personal experience with HIV criminalization in the first feature of True (Not) Crime. What do you want the public and other stakeholders in the HIV space to learn from your and other surrogates’ stories about their experience with HIV and the criminal justice system?
These stories are real people’s lives. They may sound like something that happened a long time ago, but there is still more to be said about it. You might not see it on our faces, but some of us are still struggling with the consequences of these convictions every day when we try to manage relationships with our families and friends, secure employment, access housing, or continue our education.
We are trying to get our lives back on track and it’s difficult to push forward when you have a felony or conviction on your record. Most importantly, we are trying to remember who we are after our unjust treatment in the criminal justice system. We can only hope that this egregious experience changes us for the better, but sometimes you may find yourself feeling incapable of living a full life. I want people to know about these realities and problems that we constantly face because of HIV criminalization.
Q: As a Gay Black man in the South living with HIV, you have experienced the direct legal and social consequences from the stigma surrounding HIV. What are the social and structural issues that perpetuate HIV stigma in the South and how would reforming HIV criminalization laws in the region help fight stigma?
Historical and present-day racism, especially anti-Black racism, has always been an issue in the South. Not only this, but also false narratives that Black people are criminals and that our Black lives don’t matter, perpetuate the idea that our community deserves to be seen as less important compared to other dominant groups in society. Structural and institutional racism also creates high levels of poverty, disenfranchisement, and inequities in our healthcare and criminal justice system that produce the disproportionate burden of HIV and over-criminalization of the Black community in the South.
Other marginalized populations such as LGBTQ individuals and sex workers are also more susceptible to policing and potential criminalization or prosecution because of their identity. If you’re a person living with HIV in these communities, you may lack access to health care to get medication or treatment. Law enforcement often lacks the multicultural competence to appropriately interact with members of these communities. This over-policing is not because Black people or other minorities are doing illegal things that warrant this oppression, but because of the existing structural and institutional racism, cultural conservatism, and religious intolerance in the South.
In the approaches to reform HIV criminalization, people must first understand that bad policies and laws that criminalize HIV undermine public health and do not follow the science around HIV. Second, people living with HIV, including those affected by criminalization, must be involved in leadership, decision-making, and broad-based coalition building. Third, removing the felony status and requirement to register as a sex offender is key because HIV is not the only infectious disease that is criminalized, but it is often singled out for the harshest penalties. Other STI transmissions are considered misdemeanors, but HIV transmission is a felony. Currently, there are six states that may require registration as a sex offender as part of punishment under these laws.
Eliminating the felony status and sex offender registry requirement will change the perception that people living with HIV are a threat or inferior to others. The political reality among states sometimes only leaves room for reforms rather than repeals – if so, these priorities should be on top of the list.
Q: As a founding member of Sero, you not only advocate for HIV decriminalization but also teach other people to become advocates through the HIV is Not A Crime National Training Academy. What is the academy?
The HIV Is Not A Crime (HINAC) National Training Academy is a conference for grassroots advocates who are passionate about social justice and fighting HIV-related stigma, discrimination, and criminalization. It is a biannual event that started in 2014, but COVID-19 forced the HINAC executive committee to reschedule last year’s training to 2021. It provides training and opportunities for broad-based coalition building, which is very important in grassroots organizing. The conference draws a wide variety of people, such as people living with HIV, people who were formerly incarcerated, people who inject drugs, LGBTQ individuals, and allies from other communities that are passionate about decriminalizing HIV. Many of these people or their loved ones have been directly impacted by the intersection of the criminal justice system and HIV.
The training academy is led by national networks of people living with HIV including Sero, the Positive Women’s Network, the U.S. People Living with HIV Caucus, Positively Trans, and Thrive SS. Since our beginning in 2014, the movement has grown tremendously. We started with just people living with HIV, but it has now expanded to include other HIV-related and/or service organizations and partners that fight against stigma, discrimination, and criminalization overall.
Q: Recently, Virginia became the latest state to modernize laws around HIV and people living with HIV, sparking a national conversation on HIV criminalization. What message and next steps do you have for the HIV community to continue this fight towards ending HIV criminalization in the U.S.?
One, they can continue to talk about it. COVID-19 has overshadowed a lot of things, but we are still here and fighting. Some states have changed their laws during the COVID-19 pandemic and some are still introducing legislation.
Follow the various activists and leaders from the national networks to the local groups to learn more about the issue and how you can help. The activists, especially those on the ground, have been committed to this fight for a long time. Their persistence has paid off as we gain victories in states, such as Virginia.
Remember to center on racial and gender justice and include communities most impacted by HIV and criminalization. The collective advocacy and success in Virginia were led by Black leaders, people living with HIV, and Black individuals living with HIV because they best understood the impact of these laws against their own communities. Participate in your local and state coalitions by attending a meeting or joining a call. If you are not aware of what is available in your area, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or any of those networks I mentioned to get connected to working groups in your state. HIV is Not a Crime National Training Academy is also happening this year from June 7 to 10, and is a great opportunity for people to learn about HIV criminalization and join the movement.
The work towards HIV decriminalization is a marathon, not a sprint. The more we talk about it, the more we educate others.