Decades-Old Laws Still Consider HIV a ’Deadly Weapon’

by Peter Cassels

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday April 26, 2010

The incident involving Darren Chiacchi, an equestrian champion, in central Florida, made headlines. The incident also raises a host of legal and ethical issues involving responsibility for revealing one's HIV status to potential sex partners.

The statutes have been on the books since the early days of the epidemic. Most were enacted out of fear and anxiety, when it wasn't clear just how HIV is transmitted and contracting AIDS was considered a death sentence.

Chiacchi led the U.S. equestrian team to the bronze medal in 2004. Authorities arrested the Ocala resident in January. He pleaded not guilty in February and is scheduled to go on trial in June. If found guilty, he could face 30 years in prison for assault with a deadly weapon.

Chiacchia and the unnamed boyfriend began dating in February 2009 after meeting through a gay web site. The boyfriend broke off the relationship after discovering medical records reporting Chiacchia's HIV status. The state attorney prosecuting Chiacchia has declined to say whether the boyfriend, who was HIV-negative before the relationship began, has since tested positive for the virus.

The case is the latest in a string of incidents news media have covered in recent months. In March, prosecutors in Houston, Texas, decided to upgrade charges against a man accused of having sex with a 15-year-old boy to aggravated sexual assault This text will be the linkwith a deadly weapon because he has HIV.

In perhaps the weirdest case, a jury in Holland convicted two men of assault for attempting to infect 14 victims with blood containing the HIV virus in November 2008.

People who deliberately infect others with HIV (most people would consider monsters not too strong a term to describe them) date back to the beginnings of the epidemic.

Gaetan Dugas, a Canadian flight attendant whom epidemiologists identified as the notorious Patient Zero, traveled the globe and allegedly infected people in such early AIDS epicenters as New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Paris and London. He told his numerous sex partners he had the "gay cancer" after exposing them to the virus.

Discriminatory - Except When Intentional

Experts EDGE interviewed were unanimous in agreeing that anyone who intentionally infects individuals with the HIV virus should be prosecuted, but they maintained that laws specifically targeting HIV-positive people are discriminatory.

"There are many things that are transmitted sexually that carry significant risk of death," Dr. Stephen Boswell, president and CEO of Fenway Health in Boston, said in a phone interview. "Unless there are laws for every infection that you need to inform a partner about, it seems rather inconsistent to me that they would focus on HIV. Some of these risks are every bit as great." He called some of the reaction to the virus when it was first identified in the early 1980s, such as the laws enacted, "outright prejudice."

Such laws are unnecessary and have no proven deterrent effect, according to Bebe Anderson, HIV project director at Lambda Legal. The organization's website lists the statutes in the 32 states.

Only some of them require HIV-positive individuals to inform sex partners of their status, Anderson pointed out in an e-mail interview. Others criminalize conduct whether or not the person informs a sex partner. Several criminalize conduct that poses virtually no risk of HIV transmission.

"Lambda Legal is opposed to laws that single out people living with HIV for prosecution or enhanced penalties based on conduct that would not be illegal if engaged in by someone who doesn't have HIV," Anderson said.

Rather than offering protection from HIV, the laws actually cause some harm, she pointed out.

"These laws serve to stigmatize people with HIV," Anderson explained. "HIV stigma has been shown to have a detrimental effect on both HIV prevention efforts and treatment of people living with HIV. It leads some people to avoid getting tested, refrain from obtaining needed healthcare or forego antiretroviral medications."

Media coverage of prosecutions makes matters worse, she maintained. "It tends to sensationalize the issue and creates a false impression that intentional transmission is a widespread problem, when in fact such incidents are very rare."

While Lambda Legal believes such laws ought to be repealed, Anderson said she is not aware of efforts to do so.

Asked whether the organization has represented anyone accused of crimes because of their HIV status, Anderson reported that it has filed amicus briefs in a few cases, but none involving sexual conduct, and has given advice to criminal defense attorneys representing people with HIV.

Anyone who's contemplating having sex with a complete stranger needs to deal with the issue of responsibility. How does one negotiate the shoals of having sex with someone you don't know, especially in the heat of the moment? How much responsibility does the HIV-positive person have? How much responsibility does the other party have?

EDGE spoke by phone with Michael Weinstein, president of the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the nation's largest provider of AIDS/HIV medical care, to get some answers.

"If you're making a decision in the heat of the moment either out of passion or are already involved, you're very likely to make less wise decisions," he said. "In a casual sex encounter, the person who carries an infection and has the ability to infect another person has the greater share of responsibility for preventing a new infection. It's common sense to assume the other person is positive and take the necessary precautions against HIV and a host of STDs. No guidelines ultimately are going to decide who to trust."

It's common sense to always use protection unless you know your sex partner well enough and are engaged in a long-term relationship, Weinstein advised.

Many gays meet sex partners through the Internet. At least one company providing such online meeting places believes it has a responsibility as well--to educate members about precautions they should take.

Online Buddies operates, the popular social networking web site that has four million members worldwide.

The company has what it calls an online health center ( offering a plethora of information on resources, education, HIV testing, condoms and research.

David Novak is the senior pubic health strategist at Online Buddies. Before joining the company, he had been national syphilis program coordinator at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "provides practical, relevant health resources and web links for interested Manhunt members and the GLBTQ community at large," Novak said in a statement to EDGE. "Over the past seven years Manhunt has partnered with hundreds of non-profit community-based organizations and public health departments to provide individualized, local health information for the benefit of our members."

Dr. Abigail Zuger, a New York City physician who specializes in infectious diseases, wrote in a New York Times opinion piece after the arrest of Darren Chiacchia that it's time to get beyond blame for why people get HIV.

"Whose fault is a new HIV infection, really?" Zuger wrote. "Is it mine, for giving it to you, or is it yours, for being stupid and cavalier enough to get it?"

Peter Cassels is a recipient of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's Excellence in Journalism award. His e-mail address is [email protected].