A Miscarriage of Justice in Missouri
by Wesley Thomas, Program Coordinator for LGBTQ Health and Rights
The trial and conviction of Michael Johnson is a perfect storm of ways NOT to help reduce HIV rates among young men of color who have sex with men.
Johnson, 23, was accused not having disclosed his HIV status to sexual partners – a crime in Missouri and 23 other states. Six former partners testified that Johnson had not disclosed his status, while Johnson testified that he did. Johnson was found guilty in May, and sentenced to a total of 60 years in prison.
His trial and sentencing are a perfect storm of harmful approaches to and biases surrounding HIV. Articles on Gawker and Buzzfeed have described in detail the biases of the jury (many believed homosexuality itself is a sin); the myths about HIV which were shared in the courtroom (including that HIV could be transmitted by masturbation); and the problematic nature of HIV criminalization laws in general (they stigmatize individuals with HIV, and do not lower HIV rates).
For a decade we have been watching HIV rates rise among young men of color who have sex with men. And we are still stuck in a dangerous fog of stigma and ignorance.
Michael Johnson grew up with parents and a church who urged him, if not to be straight, at least to stay in the closet. Like most young gay men in the United States, he never received sexuality education that was relevant to his life. In his home state of Indiana, sex education must stress abstinence until marriage; it’s worth noting that same-sex marriage was illegal in the state during the entirety of Johnson’s time in school. Johnson has said he not only never received practical, skills building information designed for young men who have sex with men in any health education class; he never even heard homosexuality mentioned. He is unlikely even to have seen a condom demonstration, much less to have learned how to assess the risk of different sexual activities two men might engage in and made a plan to reduce his potential risk (two strategies taught in programs for young men who have sex with men that have been proven to work).
Once he was diagnosed with HIV in Missouri, a state that has rejected the Affordable Care Act Medicaid expansion, he may have faced high treatment costs. He definitely faced the stigma surrounding HIV disclosure – a stigma so pervasive that his accusers repeatedly used the word “clean” to describe those who were HIV negative (and believed they could tell if someone was “clean” by looking at them.
And, throughout his life and during his trial, he faced the many centuries of white America’s fear of and fascination with Black men’s sexuality. The majority-white jury was invited to gawk at private, graphic pictures as the prosecutor provided commentary intended to evoke shock and disgust; and his white ex-partner made racially charged remarks about Johnson. Add to that the fact HIV criminalization laws are more likely to be used against Black people than whites and it becomes clear that it’s Black sexuality that is being punished.
In this atmosphere of limited education and hugely damaging prejudice, Michael Johnson made the decisions that led to his trial. His community failed him, and his schools failed him by not affirming who he is as a young Black gay man. He had unsafe sex that led to acquiring the virus; then he had unsafe sex that led or could have led to its being transmitted to others. For one of these decisions, he will have to take medication for the rest of his life; for the other, he will go to prison. But will the trial and publicity surrounding it lead to more education, more acceptance, or improved health for young men who have sex with men? It won’t. It will just lead to another young Black man behind bars.
What it comes down to is: we can’t have it both ways with how we treat young men who have sex with men. We can’t deny young people the supports and education they need to make healthy decisions, and then literally put them on trial when they have sex. So, if we want our young men to take personal responsibility for their health and well-being, we have to give them the tools they need to do that. If we want them to ask their partners’ status and disclose their own, we have to create an environment where HIV is not stigmatized. If we want them to create relationships where people feel comfortable discussing HIV and taking steps to protect from it, then we have to create an environment that fosters that discussion.
Instead, in 24 states or more, we’re doing the opposite – piling on to an environment of shame and emotional trauma, spreading the silence, and further impeding people’s ability to access treatment and care.