The Diversity Resource Center will be hosting an event for World AIDS Day that will include a speech about updating Idaho Code 39-608, which convicts people living with HIV/AIDS if they cannot prove they disclosed their status to their sexual partners.
“We like to use the term modernize,” said Kevin Lish, board chair of the All Under One Roof, Pocatello’s LGBTQ+ youth center, and lead member of the Idaho Coalition for HIV Health and Safety. “We know that legislators and the government did not create this law with malicious intent, but we think it’s important to modernize this law…and hopefully put Idaho on a path toward HIV free population.”
The code was passed in 1988 and convicts “any person who exposes another in any manner with the intent to infect or, knowing that he or she is or has been afflicted with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.”
Since 1988, the code has sent many Idahoans to jail for simply not being able to prove they disclosed their status. Perhaps the most notorious case is that of Kerry Thomas, an Idaho man who was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2009 for not disclosing his status to his sexual partner, despite the fact that he had not transferred the virus, and in fact, the medication he was taking made his HIV RNA viral load undetectable.
“Some new science has shown that if someone has been undetectable for six months or more, they have a 0 percent chance of passing the virus to someone else,” Lish said. “Laws like this is where HIV stigma is grounded. It just affects the overall way people are and should be treated.”
Lish and others that are working to modernize the code also argue that it discourages people from being tested, as they cannot be prosecuted if they themselves were not aware they had the virus. This, in turn, said Lish leads to HIV positive people not seeking treatment and potentially increasing their risk of passing the virus on to another person.
“Modernizing this code is one of the first steps to overturning the stigma,” Lish said.
He hopes that by speaking at ISU he can inform students of the dangers of HIV/AIDS, as he said most ISU students are in a dangerous age bracket. In 2015, youth aged 13 to 24 accounted for 22 percent of all new HIV diagnoses in the United States.
“We need to target all people who are sexually active,” Lish said. “This can affect anyone.”
He also said getting the word out is a good way to gain allies, so the coalition will have support from the general public when they do go to legislators about updating the code. Currently, they are partnered with the ACLU of Idaho, Engaging Voices and the Intermountain Housing Coalition among other organizations.
Additionally, the coalition has gained the help of Idaho State Representative John McCrostie from Garden City to lead them through the legislation.
The coalition began in March of 2016 when Lish met Sean Strub, the founder of the Sero Project, a network of people that works to decriminalize HIV throughout the nation. Since then, they have been working to inform people throughout the state of the code and the need to update it.
Lish will be speaking from 2 to 3 p.m. Dec. 1 in the Rendezvous Complex. Additionally, All Under One Roof will be doing free confidential HIV testing in the Gender Resource Library for the event.
All Under One Roof also offers HIV testing outside of this event, as well as classes in conjunction with ISU counseling designed to help teachers better help and understand LGBTQ+ youth and HIV and women’s support groups.
From 5 to 9 p.m. the night of Dec. 1, All Under One Roof will also be hosting their annual fundraiser, An Evening in Red to raise money for the local HIV clinic There will be live music, an auction and a no host bar.
“It’s a way to celebrate those we have lost and help those who are still with us,” Lish said.
He added that he would encourage all ISU students, even those who are not part of the LGBTQ+ community or do not think they are affected by HIV/AIDS to attend the event.
“We need more people to be honest and open and start having conversations about this,” Lish said. “And then we can start really bringing down the number of newly infected cases in Idaho.”