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10/25/2016

Sidney Skipper talks about his experiences at Michigan Lobby Day in Lansing. 

I’m in Lansing, Michigan at the State Capital Building, with officials from the Michigan Coalition for HIV Health and Safety (MCHHS), Kelly Doyle and Todd Heywood.  We’re joined by Teresa Perrin whose son is serving a seven year sentence under Michigan’s HIV Disclosure laws.  We’ve gathered here on this beautiful fall day to speak with State Representatives, Brian Banks, Winnie Brinks and Tom Cochran, about co sponsoring a bill that would amend the 1988 Michigan HIV Disclosure Laws, (MCL 333-5210), to place responsibility on the prosecutor to prove intent to transmit the virus, and that transmission actually occurred.  Right now the law is vague and left to interpretation, it ignores the intent requirement, and while the CDC categorizes spitting and biting as low risk for transmission, persons can still be prosecuted for these actions. Nor does the present legislation take into account that in 2016 an HIV diagnosis is a chronic manageable condition.

Did you know that in Michigan you can be charged with a felony and jailed for 4 years or more for not disclosing your HIV status to a partner?  An HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence, and yet men and women in Michigan and around the country are sitting in prison for non disclosure, and in some cases placed on a sex offender list, even if they didn’t transmit the virus to the accuser, even if they used a condom, and even if they’re on medication that lowers the chances of transmitting the virus by up to 96%. Thirty three states have laws that explicitly focus on people living with HIV, the only infection that can become a felony, in spite of the fact that there are other diseases that are transmitted in the same manner, and can also lead to death if left untreated, for example, Hepatitis B.  Iowa and Colorado are the only two states to have amended their laws to reflect the new science of HIV.

The US Department of Justice states, “While HIV specific state criminal laws may be viewed as initially well intentioned and necessary law enforcement tools, the vast majority do not reflect the current state of the science of HIV, and places additional burdens on individuals living with HIV.”   According to the PLHIV Stigma Index Detroit, 88% of respondents don’t trust Michigan courts to give them a fair hearing if they are accused of not disclosing their HIV status to a partner.  62% felt that it’s reasonable not to get an HIV test for fear of prosecution. 46% felt that it was reasonable not to disclose their HIV status for fear of prosecution. And over half of the respondents felt that it was reasonable not to seek care out of fear of prosecution.  Just because someone doesn’t disclose their HIV status doesn’t mean that they want to hurt their partner.  The choking fear of stigma and unjust prosecution is silencing, and it’s stifling our efforts to completely eradicate this disease.

I was diagnosed HIV positive twenty-five years ago, on October 29, 1989, and given a year to live. Since 2000, I’ve been on ART (Antiretroviral Therapy), one pill a day.  The virus is undetectable in my blood, which makes it unlikely that I can pass the virus to a partner during sexual intercourse. I will not deny the anguish that living with HIV causes, and has caused me over the years, but I have never held anyone but myself responsible for me contracting the virus.  As I told Representative Cochran:  To accuse a person of non disclosure, to jail them and ruin their life, while we no longer die from HIV if we’re in treatment with undetectable levels of the virus in our blood, seems to be cruel and unusual punishment to me.

All of the representatives or their aides that we spoke to on this day were gracious and receptive to our recommendations. The new bill that MCHHS crafted does not repeal the disclosure statutes all together.  A key part of the new legislation states, “A person who acts with the specific intent to transmit the HIV infection to another person, and engages in conduct that poses a substantial risk of transmission, and actually causes HIV infection to the other person, is guilty of a crime punishable by not more than 1 year or a fine of not more than $1,000, or both.”  When you take into consideration that HIV is no longer a death sentence, misdemeanor charges, rather than felony charges, are sufficient consequences for an intentional transmission of a treatable, infectious disease. If I might add, intending to infect someone with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus is very rare.

My personal feeling is that the laws should be repealed all together, but during a conference I attended earlier this year, I was told that because of the stigma, the animus surrounding HIV, prosecutors would use other legislation to prosecute offenders with the intent to infect, but with this legislation we are the gatekeepers.  UNIFIED: HIV Health and Beyond joins The White House National HIV/AIDS Strategy to End HIV, to support this bill, because it aligns with the  current science, and because we are dedicated to advancing prevention, providing access to healthcare, community research and above all, advocacy that we feel advances the dignity of people living with HIV.

My most memorable meeting of the day was at the Capital offices of the primary sponsor of the bill, the Honorable Jon Hoadley of Kalamazoo, Michigan.  Representative Hoadley is a formidable champion dedicated to modernizing the Michigan HIV Disclosure laws. He would like to have at least thirteen co sponsors for the legislation before he introduces it.  We’re already halfway there, thanks to the hard work of past advocates, and today we may have added four more. The MCHHS has another lobby day scheduled for November 11, 2016, and we need all of the advocates that we can muster to stand with us.  This is a call to action for those interested in reforming our outmoded, unjust HIV Criminalization Laws, to come on out and join us in Lansing, Michigan on November 11, 2016, in the gilded halls of the Michigan State Capital building.  Todd Heywood, the Policy Director for MCHHS encourages us to, “Take responsibility to empower ourselves to protect ourselves and our partner.”  For more information about the next Lobby Day contact Todd at, Todd@MCHHS.info, or call 517-899-6182.

 
 
 

7/27/2016

The Doctors Visit

Hello all. Well after my doctor’s visit a few weeks ago I was excited that she wanted to start me on Wellbutrin along with the Nicotine patches in another attempt for me to quit smoking. The visit went well and after I left her office, I stopped by my pharmacy to pick up my Wellbutrin but she hadn’t called it in. I was a little disappointed but know that her schedule was quite busy so thought I’d give her a few days. On the 3rd day, I stopped by the pharmacy again only to find out that she still hadn’t faxed over the prescription. So I called and left a message on her voice mail. She called me back a few days later and mentioned that my doctor (she’s actually my nurse clinician but I consider her my doctor in that I see her most of the time when I go in) wanted me to participate in a study vs prescribing the Wellbutrin.

I’d already tried a study and didn’t have any success so I’m not particularly crazy about the idea, but you know what they say. Never quit quitting. I’ll keep you posted with how I come out.

 

7/5/2016



A community discussion in a safe space. #POZ #HIV #Detroit

 

6/23/2016

By: Sidney Skipper

“Sweating, heart palpitating; suddenly I’m awake, sitting up in bed. “My body, something is happening inside my body.” The spot where I was sleeping is soaked. It’s 4am in the morning. Kenny is laying sound asleep next to me. “Something is happening inside my body.” Thoughts of AIDS rush around my mind: Flu symptoms, night sweats, high risk, enlarged lymph nodes, no cure. My anxiety is replaced with a decision to get tested immediately.

I try to go back to sleep, but when Kenny wakes at 7am I’m still wide awake. “We’ve got to get tested.” Kenny doesn’t know what I’m talking about. I show him the soaked spot on my pillow, and explain this dread fear that I have. “I may have AIDS and I need to know.” Now, Kenney is the type of man who feels that as long as he isn’t sick, he doesn’t want to know, or need to know, whether anything’s wrong. It’s important to me so after a couple of days of discussion he agrees to go with me to get tested for HIV.

It’s early October, 1989, the leaves on the trees are emblazoned with colors ranging from lush browns to bright yellow, vibrant red and orange. The air is crisp and clear. On the way to Henry Ford Hospital, where HIV/AIDS anonymous testing is done, I look out of the car window at natures kaleidoscope of color as if I’m looking at it for the last time.

When we arrive at the hospital we’re directed to an isolated wing where one person is drawing blood and counseling. Very little is known about HIV at the time. We’re told that we would have the results of our blood test in two weeks. “Two weeks.” Needless to say those two weeks are filled with visible anxiety for me. Kenny on the other hand appears apathetic. I call Kenny’s apathy invisible anxiety.

The phone is ringing. It’s 9am October 27, 1989. “Hello.” “Hello, Mr. Skipper, this is Bill Townsend. We need for you and your partner to come in to the clinic to receive your test results.” It’s the counselor from the testing center at Henry Ford Hospital. “Can’t you give them to me over the phone?” “No,” is the response, “Against policy.” I knew that. I don’t know why I asked. “OK, we’re on our way.”

The Palmer Park area off of Woodward Ave. and six mile road in Detroit was once a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Now it’s a predominantly gay neighborhood. Most of the gay black males and females in Detroit pass through Palmer Park at some time in their life. The rent for apartments and housing surrounding the park range from moderate to very expensive accommodating tastes for the simple as well as the sublime. The park is about six miles in diameter, with a wooded area, a pond and an old log cabin with some historical merit. Summer art fairs are held there, the Hotter Than July Gay Pride picnic is also held there. There are areas for family picnics, a playground, golf course, tennis courts and a swimming pool for the children. The parks diametrically round landscaping makes it ideal for inner city joggers. Its large parking lots also make it a superb cruising spot for straight and gay cuties eager to show off their sexy bodies, and their array of wonderful new cars that only Detroit can produce.

After leaving the appointment at the Henry Ford Hospital clinic, Kenny and I drive to Palmer Park and park in one of the lots under the canopy of the magnificent autumn sky. We finish of a fifth of rum and coca-cola, and smoke a joint. Our HIV test results came back positive. We don’t discuss how we got the virus or who infected us. We don’t accuse one another because we have always practiced safe sex. We must have had the virus when we met. At this point where we got the virus from is not important. What to do next is. Although the doctor told us that we would be dead in a year, I’m not depressed. I’m a child of the sixties, the generation that questioned the inherent value of everything, and believed that we could achieve anything. “Pass the joint Kenny.”

That was twenty-five years ago. I watched and waited for death while my friends and lovers passed away before my very eyes. Kenny passed away in 2005. I woke up one day and realized that I had survived what they now call the “AIDS Generation,” those of us who contracted HIV over twenty years ago when it was a death sentence. We helped to build the successes that the newly infected now enjoy through years of advocacy and caring. We are the last of our generation. We hold all of its memory, all of its history. In the throes of a plague no one thought about those of us who would survive. How do you deal with life after expecting to die?

The national strategy to tackle HIV/AIDS now is focused on the youth and prevention, as it should be. The needs of Long Term Survivors are somewhat different and are only beginning to be addressed. Many HIV long term survivors suffer from what is known as AIDS Survival Syndrome (ASS), a form of PTSD. In 2012 Tez Anderson and Matt Sharp launched a grass roots community group for people who survived the early years of the AIDS epidemic, called Let’s Kick ASS. ASS is defined by chronic anxiety, isolation, survivor guilt, depression, substance abuse, insomnia, sporadic anger, sexual risks and a lack of future orientation. Those without partners often have less income making them vulnerable to financial hardship. Some are too emotionally damaged to form new relationships or friendships for fear of being abandoned. Given a year to live some liquidated their assets, signing away their financial future. Between 2009 and 2012 suicide accounted for 4% of all deaths among people living with HIV in San Francisco, far above the national average of 1.5%. Like in the early days of the AIDS epidemic when we rallied to care for each other and ourselves, we must rally once again to understand and overcome ASS.

UNIFIED - HIV Health and Beyond salutes our long term survivors. Since 1983 UNIFIED has been a port in the storm and trusted ally for people living with HIV. UNIFIED remains dedicated to servicing the needs of those infected and affected by HIV by advancing prevention, access to health care, community research and advocacy. After Kenny died I reached out to AIDS Partnership Michigan, now UNIFIED - HIV Health and Beyond. They helped to educate myself and my family about the realities of HIV. For more information about ASS and the Lets KICK ASS campaign visit their website at http://letskickass.org/ UNIFIED is available to assist you with any issues you may have. Please feel free to contact us, 313-446-9800. www.miunified.org  You are not alone.

Sidney Skipper

PLHIV Stigma Index Leadership Council member

Author, Motivational Speaker