Cross-posted with permission from Concurring Opinions.
On Wednesday evening, popular blog Gawker.com aired a post offering a cash reward for the identity of the individual who transmitted HIV to Magic Johnson. It was particularly interested in confirming decades-old rumors that Johnson contracted HIV from sex with a man or transgender woman. The post came on the heels of a Frontline report on HIV in the African American community. Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio faulted Frontline for allowing Johnson to reveal only that he contracted HIV from having sex with numerous women. “[I]t seems odd,” Daulerio wrote, “that there’s been no follow-up about which of these women was HIV positive.”
One can imagine a world in which Johnson’s potential sexual activities might be legitimately newsworthy — say he denied that HIV was sexually transmitted or he waged a public campaign against the LGTBQ community. But that’s not the case. What will generate page hits for Gawker in this case is the public naming and shaming of an individual who is HIV positive and the public humiliation of Johnson if he engaged in something other than straight sex. Daulerio’s post coyly capitalizes on the stigma of HIV and the stigma of non-straight sex. In doing so, it plays to the very prejudices that keep people in the closet about their sexual orientation and their HIV status.
The post reflects more serious problems with how we as a society approach HIV. Sexual transmission of HIV provokes a mix of fear, disgust, anger, and fascination. We want information, but mainly information that give us someone to point to and say, “I’m not like that. That couldn’t happen to me.” As a result, even today people living with HIV are subject to discrimination and abuse, ostracized from their communities and families, and — as the Gawker post aptly demonstrates — derided in the press.
They are even subject to special criminal sanctions. It is currently a felony in several states to have sex with another person without revealing that you are HIV positive. This makes intuitive sense to a lot of people. But more often than not, these statutes reflect outdated information or even myths. For example, almost no statute provides a defense of having taken the precaution of using condoms. Several statutes criminalize sexual activities like receiving oral sex or using a sex toy, which pose risks of transmission so small they are only theoretical.
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