HIV Is No Longer a Death Sentence. But States Still Have Laws Targeting People Who Live With It

Like Salinas, Michelle Anderson, 38, lost time with family.

“People have to do this daily for years, where you can’t be around family like you want to, not only because of your HIV status but because the law says I can’t,” Anderson told The 19th. “Those little things that a lot of people do — that they take for granted, those are taken away from me by this law.”

Anderson, a Black trans woman living in Memphis, was arrested in October 2010 for prostitution and later charged with aggravated prostitution when her health records revealed she was HIV positive. Sex work was necessary for Anderson’s survival, she said. She had difficulty finding stable employment, something she said is a common concern for trans women, especially in the south.

With a felony conviction and her name on the sex offender registry, finding housing and employment became even more difficult. Though Anderson was eventually able to secure both, she depleted her savings paying the fees for rejected housing applications.

Salinas and Anderson reflect the populations most affected by HIV criminalization policies. Since 2016, the Williams Institute has published reports for individual states assessing their HIV laws. In report after report from around the country, Black people and sex workers are disproportionately punished.

A 2022 report on Tennessee by the Williams Institute examined 154 cases of people put on the state sexual offender registry for HIV-related crimes since 1993. Women represented 46 percent of the HIV registrants, though women accounted for 26 percent of people living with HIV statewide. Black people represented 75 percent of the HIV registrants, but made up 56 percent of those living with HIV throughout the state.

These figures cannot be divorced from the larger socio-political systems that already over criminalize Black and queer people, said S. Mandisa Moore-O’Neal, executive director of the Center for HIV Law and Policy.

“We need to keep in mind the inherent anti-Blackness of criminalization that has played out in the U.S.,” Moore-O’Neal said. “And when I say Blackness, I don’t just mean Black people. I also mean those in closest proximity to Black people. So, sex workers across race, queer people across race, but especially Black queer people, trans people across race, but especially Black trans people.”