Advocates for those with HIV applaud new law

Three months ago, Don Bogardus’ world changed. In July, he gets back some of what he lost.

In March, Bogardus, 42, was convicted of violating a 16-year-old state law against having sexual contact with another person without disclosing one’s HIV status.

On Friday, Gov. Terry Branstad signed Senate File 2297, which revises the law that put Bogardus, of Waterloo, on the state sex offender list and cost him his job in a nursing home.

The bill, which passed unanimously in the Iowa House and Senate in a late-night, last-minute vote that surprised advocates who had worked on the issue for years, modernizes a law that advocates called “draconian.”

“This is a huge victory,” said Tami Haught, community organizer for Community HIV/Hepatitis Advocates of Iowa Network, or CHAIN. “It was a very long five years, and then it happened so quickly.”

Sean Strub, a native Iowan and founder of the Sero Project, which works to revise similar laws across the country, said advocates in other states are now looking here for inspiration.

Overnight, he said, Iowa changed “from being a leader in the criminalization of people with HIV to a leader in the effort to combat stigma by modernizing those statues,” Strub said.

While many states have such laws, Iowa’s was one of the harshest, resulting in up to 25 years imprisonment for so much as exposing another person to saliva without first disclosing HIV status. Opponents of the law said it criminalized people with HIV, deepened a stigma against people with the virus, and discouraged people who have been exposed to the virus from getting tested and learning their status, thereby delaying vital treatment.

The new law takes the emphasis off of people specifically with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, focusing instead more generally on infectious diseases.

It also creates a tiered system of sentencing, and removes Iowans with previous convictions under the law from the state sex offender registry.

“These laws and the fear of testing and treatment is keeping people from doing what’s right for their health,” Haught said. “Hopefully we can get to zero new infections and zero deaths. This is a good start for good public health policy, and this will start us in that direction.”

Bogardus, who was diagnosed with HIV in 2008, didn’t tell a partner he had the virus, and when the partner found out, he went to the police.

At the time, Bogardus’ viral load was undetectable, and he did not transmit the virus. His partner tried to drop the charges, Bogardus said, but it was too late. Bogardus spent two months in jail, and five years in a legal battle that resulted in his conviction earlier this year. He was sentenced to two to five years of probation, 10 years on the sex offender registry, and a year with a GPS ankle bracelet.

“It was so hard,” Bogardus said. “I felt like my life had just crumbled.”

When the law goes into effect this summer, his probation will still stand, but his name will come off the registry, meaning he can return to his job as a nurse’s assistant.

While activists are pleased with the new law, they say it is only the beginning.

“There is still work to be done within the community to dispel the stigma, harmful stereotypes and misinformation often associated with HIV,” said Donna Red Wing, executive director of One Iowa, the state’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights organization.

Haught wants to see the 1998 law repealed entirely.

“It would be nice to get to a point in time when we don’t have to have laws based on fear,” she said.

This summer, the Sero Project will hold the HIV is Not a Crime conference at Grinnell College, which will bring national activists to the state.

“Others are eager to learn from the Iowans,” Strub said.

Bogardus says he if he could do it over again, he would have told his partner about his HIV status. He said it was fear of rejection because of the stigma associated with HIV that led him to do otherwise. But although he regrets his actions, he doesn’t think his punishment was just.

“The things I had to go through, it was just terrible,” Bogardus said.

Going to jail for the first time, waiting five years in limbo to find out if he’d be sentenced to prison, and registering as a sex offender, he said, “I just felt like this monster.”

“I just wish things would have been a whole lot different,” he said.

Now, they will be.

Read the article from The Des Moines Register.