We can't say this reaction was unexpected.
California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that reduces the crime for knowingly exposing a sexual partner to HIV from a felony to a misdemeanor. Across social media, a not insignificant number of gay, bisexual, and MSM (men who have sex with men) are up in arms about the move. Most of the responses say that this encourages HIV+ men to no longer disclose their status. But let's walk through this.
Most of these laws that criminalize those with HIV (and here is a map and listing of those laws as kept by the Centers for Disease Control) were enacted at the height of public panic over HIV and AIDS. Why panic? Because at the time, this was thought to be a "gay disease" (at first it was called "gay cancer"), and that fed into public opinion at the time. Throughout most of the 1980s, a majority--nearly 60% of Americans--believed that homosexuality should be illegal, according to Gallup. And the combination of these factors led Congress to not just enact federal funding for states to combat HIV, but also to criminalize knowingly exposing others to the virus. Yes, in order to receive help, states had to promise to criminalize HIV that was a nothing more than a thinly masked effort to criminalize homosexuality. Bigotry and fear are at the heart of these laws still on the books.
The problem is that, like many laws, these aren't a matter of effective health policy or reductions in occurrence. Rather, they are rooted in fear and punishment. This lingers in the LGBTQ community, and especially in the gay community, to the point where gay men demonstrate serious gaps in medical knowledge about sexual health despite that gay men continue to have consensual sex under the veil of such ignorance. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, as recently as 2014, fewer than half of gay men know that proper treatment reduces the risk of HIV transmission. and only 25% knew about PrEP, the preventative medication and medical health program that reduces HIV transmission to less than a statistical anomaly.
The move by California comes just weeks after the CDC joined public health experts in the consensus scientific view: "undetectable = untransmittable". But gay men lack this knowledge and instead continue to rely on outdated understanding, internalized homophobia, and perpetuation of stigma that falsely believes the HIV is a death sentence. By no means are we saying that a poz HIV status is both simple and easy to navigate, but it shouldn't be treated as a criminalized state of existence. By looking at HIV--at all stages of sexual health--as a public health issue and not a criminal issue, it allows us to have the conversations we need to have, do the teaching and learning that is needed, and extend prevention and treatment policies where they are needed.
Bravo, California. And we have more work yet to do.