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Is HIV A Crime?
Robert Suttle was planning to join the military 12 years ago when routine medical tests, revealed he was HIV positive. It was 2003 and he was 24 years old. He says he was overwhelmed by the brutal news.
“It was a dark time in my life.”
Fast forward to 2008, managing his condition for five years. Robert’s life would forever change after a casual sex partner accused him of not disclosing his HIV status. Although he disputes the claim, Suttle affirms as of this year, 2015, he’s been undetectable for more than a decade. But at the time of the consensual sexual encounter, neither gentleman had or used a condom. And according to Suttle his accuser did not and has not seroconverted. Most HIV criminalization laws are written based on ‘exposure’ not ‘transmission.’
He ended up being criminally charged, accepting a plea bargain for a lighter sentence. He served six months in a Louisiana prison for HIV non-disclosure to a former partner, with whom he had a contentious relationship.
The ordeal was obviously humiliating and scary for both, but maybe more so for Suttle who actually worked inside the local courthouse. In fact, he says he was well on his way to be the first Black deputy clerk until this happened.
“I took a plea but I wish I would have fought it then. I’d never been arrested or in trouble with the law before ever, so this was a lot. Before the arrest I was very scared. They arrested me at work, in front of co-workers, people who I had deep relationships with. It was very embarrassing.”
After his release, there were some harsh realities from the conviction. Traveling is one example; He’s been denied entry by the country of Mexico and he’s been refused a rental apartment based on his sex offender status.
“I had to register as a sex offender. Everywhere I go now, I have to register with local law enforcement, so I relive it each time.”
But one minute talking to Robert, you can feel his optimism and resilience. “Today I’m okay. I’m stronger, wiser, much more informed. I am actually a leader in HIV and I never thought that would happen.”
Suttle has managed to slowly build a life since his criminal case with faith and help from others. He’s now assistant director of The SERO Project, a nonprofit initiative combating HIV criminalization, stigma, and discrimination, promoting the empowerment of people with HIV, providing support to those charged or at risk of being prosecuted.
“My advice to HIV positive people is to not give up on a relationship. There are people out there who can handle you. Love will come, love will come.”
Walker Tisdale is the Executive Editor of Healthyblackmen.org. He resides in metro Atlanta.