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Friday, 2 October 2009

Canada: Xtra publishes its anti-criminalisation piece-de-resistance

Just a week after Canada's national gay paper, Xtra, published a radically anti-criminalisation interview on their website,, comes their piece-de-resistance, Beyond the Courts: a smart, well-written and researched 5,000 word essay from queer Canadian writer/advocate Shawn Syms, whose previous writing on criminalisation and the HIV-positive/negative divide was equally insightful and thought-provoking.

In the piece - which will also be published in shorter form as the cover story of next month's print edition of Toronto's Xtra - Syms asks (and tries to answer) the question: How do we stop the spread of HIV without dividing our [unspoken HIV-positive versus HIV-negative and untested gay] communities?

Syms brings together many voices from Canada and abroad - including mine - to illustrate the "growing chorus of activists, civil-society advocates and community members [who are] rallying evidence to show that jailing people with HIV only quenches the individual and public thirst for retribution and blame—while failing to prevent onward HIV transmission."

There's much to recommend in the piece, but a few things stand out for me.

First, he turns the argument that the law protects HIV-negative people by punishing HIV-positive people for 'victimising' HIV-negative people on its head.

The media and police would have us believe that irresponsible people with HIV are out there victimizing others—but we should never forget that the reality is the other way around. People with HIV are an oppressed minority subject to frequent acts of discrimination by others who have power over them—including the accusers in criminalization cases.
Earlier in the piece, he explains how Canada's criminalisation of HIV non-disclosure does this.
A vindictive person could use their knowledge of someone’s HIV status as a weapon against them. Many believe this is what happened last year in the case of “Diane,” a Montreal woman whose partner suddenly alleged she had not disclosed her HIV status once she pressed charges against him for domestic assault.

Some people with HIV have been threatened by people they’ve never even been intimate with. Fred Meikle of London, Ontario, says he had an exchange last year with an acquaintance in a online chatroom where the person stated, “I should call the police, tell them you didn’t disclose.” Meikle replied “We’ve never even had sex; you sat on my sofa and drank a beer.” He says the man replied, “Well, who do you think they will believe?”—highlighting the rift in social power between HIV-negative and positive gay men.

Understandably, this creates a climate of literal “terror” for people with HIV, says Angel Parks, Positive Youth Outreach coordinator for the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT). “This is spiraling out of control,” she says about the upswing in criminal charges. At a recent forum in Ottawa in June, she reports, people with HIV from across the country responded to the criminalization threat with “fear, shame, humiliation, and most of all confusion.” And at the weekly support group she coordinates, “individuals are scared… they don’t know to protect themselves” from the risk of bogus charges.
Now, Syms is not saying that all charges are bogus, but that the law as it had been created and is currently practised by the criminal justice system, is open to abuse. That relatively few cases have involved sex between men is irrelevent. It is the climate of fear and mistrust (on both sides) that worries him (and me).

He analyses this further later in the piece, when he rips apart the too-commonly-believed gay community myth that HIV only affects "hardcore risk takers" whose unbridled 'barebacking' turns them into "sexual predators."
The common perception goes something like this. HIV is extremely dangerous, inevitably fatal and not that hard to get. People with HIV have an obligation to tell all partners before any sexual activity at all—because it’s not possible to consent to sex without knowing if the other person has HIV.

To this way of thinking, anyone who doesn’t disclose is dishonest, untrustworthy and probably addicted to barebacking—after all, if their sense of ethics and responsibility were not so obviously lacking, they wouldn’t have contracted the virus in the first place. And someone like that wouldn’t think twice about giving someone else HIV, on purpose. So the solution is to avoid these people, like the plague.


But gay men haven’t done a good job of passing on the harm-reduction message to new generations, says Richard Berkowitz, one of the originators of safe-sex education in 1983 and subject of the recent documentary Sex Positive. “Today, even progressive gay people fall into the trap of imagining that we are talking about sexual predators who deserve to be locked up.”

The perspective Berkowitz points out hinges upon seeing negative and positive gay men as fundamentally different from one another. This is a mistake, noted Sigma Research’s Ford Hickson in an address to a UK sexual health conference in March. What most often distinguishes positive and negative guys is not ethics or behaviour, but bad luck.

“HIV risk is widespread. It is not the case that a small group of hardcore risk takers account for the new infections,” said Hickson. “The transmissions that occur over the next year will be the unlucky ones in a large population each taking a few risks.”
Finally, he follows the lead of last week's Xtra interviewee, Bob Watkin, the outgoing Chair of the HIV and AIDS Legal Clinic of Ontario (HALCO), asking readers to get "angry and loud."
As Justice Cameron of South Africa told those assembled at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network’s recent symposium, “some of the Canadian cases are so outrageous, I have wondered why there weren’t protestors outside the courtroom with t-shirts and placards and activists shouting inside the court room. Have you lost your activist fervour?”

Cameron is right. We need to rekindle the queer rage and sense of injustice that fuelled historic LGBT protests, from the response to the bathhouse raids, to the efforts of Gay CourtWatch in the eighties to protect gay men busted on sex-related charges, to the beginnings of the original AIDS activist movement.

And we need a coalition of negative, positive and untested queers and allies to carry out this effort. Criminalization is an extreme manifestation of HIV stigma—and it shouldn’t be only people with HIV who put themselves on the line to fight it. With tools ranging from placard and megaphones to Facebook and Twitter, we need to combat the abuses of the police, the justice system and the media, and demand access to appropriate testing resources and consistent and high-quality sex education for all, regardless of HIV status.
Kudos to Syms, and to Xtra's editorial director, Matt Mills, for this piece: the best I've seen yet on the issue as it relates to gay men in Canada (and light years ahead of how New Zealand's gay press is dealing with the issue).

Read the full piece on

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