OK — so, let’s get this out there right on the front end. I am living with HIV. I have been open about this since 2008. I regularly lecture on HIV policy and prevention issues, and I write for national HIV publications. So, it’s not a secret.
I am so comfortable with all this, I often wear a t-shirt with the words “HIV Positive” written across the front -- and I don’t have a second thought about it once the shirt is on.
On Monday, about 4 p.m. I had an interesting experience — one that many of us living with HIV have in large and small ways every single day. Here’s how I explained it to Michigan State Police Public Information Manage Shannon Banner in an email:
“I live on South Fairview, and this afternoon about 4 pm, I was driving North on S. Fairview and noticed on Elizabeth between S Fairview and Aurelius that there was a gaggle of unmarked vehicles plus one LPD vehicle with its lights on behind another vehicle.When I pulled around and parked I saw several officers in plain vests that said "police" on them.
I watched and took some pictures from a distance. When two officers separated, I walked down and called one officer over. I extended my hand to him and identified myself as Todd Heywood from the City Pulse. The Officer refused to shake my hand. I assumed it was a safety precaution and said something to that effect. He corrected me and informed me that "I have a cut on my hand. You're wearing a t-shirt that says you're HIV positive. I don't want to get it." I explained he could not get it that way and which was summarily dismissed — so I asked what was going on.”
Let’s make something crystal clear — you can NOT get HIV through casual contact — that means things like shaking hands or sharing eating utensils.
“I can verify that is not how HIV is transmitted,” said Angela Minicucci, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, regarding handshakes. “That is not something we would categorize as a risk behavior.”
So back to this story. In the email I asked about MSP policies, procedures and training regarding HIV for troopers.
This morning, Banner emailed the following response:
"I’m sorry to hear you feel you were treated inappropriately by an officer on-scene. Should you feel it rises to the level of misconduct, you can make a formal complaint with our Professional Standards Section. Instructions for doing so can be found here: http://www.michigan.gov/msp/0,4643,7-123-1579_1656_58970-260956--,00.html "
OK, so maybe this one trooper — who incidentally works with the fugitive team and was making an arrest of a wanted felon — was a social anomaly?
Sadly, no. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported in 2011, on the 30th anniversary of AIDS in America, that the knowledge of the average American regarding HIV is woefully lacking.
“Thirty years into the HIV/AIDS epidemic, substantial shares of Americans continue to express discomfort at the idea of interacting with people living with HIV. For example, 45 percent say they’d be uncomfortable having their food prepared by someone who is HIV-positive, 36 percent with having an HIV-positive roommate, 29 percent having their child in a classroom with an HIV-positive teacher, and 18 percent working with someone with HIV. However, reported levels of discomfort have decreased over the past several years. For example, the share saying they’d be “very comfortable” working with someone who has HIV increased from about a third in 1997 to roughly half in 2011. There have also been striking declines since the early years of the epidemic in the share expressing the view that AIDS is a punishment (from 43 percent in 1987 to 16 percent today) or that it’s people’s own fault if they contract the disease (from 51 percent to 29 percent).”
And the MSP is not alone in having ill-informed officers on the beat. The city of Dearborn just approved a $40,000 pay out on a federal civil rights complaint by an HIV-positive woman who was berated by an officer for not disclosing her status when he asked he to step out of the car. She’s not obligated to make such a disclosure, and despite that, he told her and her partner that had she been more forthcoming about her HIV status, he wouldn’t have written her a misdemeanor criminal ticket for marijuana possession. That charge was dismissed.
The fear, and stigma related to HIV remains as stubborn as it was 30 years ago, my friend and author Sean Strub reminds us in his response to this situation:
"Nearly 30 years ago, Princess Diana made a point of touching people with AIDS in front of the media, to fight the ignorance and stigma that had made us pariahs in our communities, sometimes even within our own families. It is tragic that people today still have such fear and reprehensibly offensive that a police officer would perpetuate that stigma. For a public official to refuse to shake the hand of a citizen because of an irrational fear is an act of psychological violence."
Strub is executive director of the Sero Project — a national organization fighting HIV discrimination in an assortment of ways. And organizations like Sero are important. That’s why the Lansing Area AIDS Network, which has been offering services to people living with HIV, their families, and those at risk for infection since 1985. The agency has provided services -- including advocacy for people living with HIV who have experienced similar, or worse situations than this one -- to thousands of area residents.