Criminalizing HIV


Throughout Ecce Homo’s blog, we have touched many times upon the issue of HIV/AIDS, especially in relation to the queer community. From the homophobic restrictions on blood donation by gay men and the three-part series on the history of HIV/AIDS in Greece to the politics of PrEP, HIV/AIDS has been a constant point of reference. The reason behind this is our firm belief that the queer experience is inextricably linked with the trauma of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, a pandemic that is far from over around the globe despite the emergence of new preventive technologies, like PrEP, the Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, new medical data, like U=U, Undetectable=Untransmittable, and pharmaceutical advances regarding the more effective treatment of the disease that have revolutionized the medical landscape of both prevention and therapy at least in some privileged enough countries. 

However, despite these developments on the medical front, the trauma of HIV/AIDS continues to haunt our queer identities, permeate our relations and mediate our desires to a large extent. One could even argue that this trauma has been constitutive of the modern queer identity, particularly for gay and bisexual men and the trans community. The loss of friends and lovers was harsh enough only to be superseded by the fight against queerphobia and utter neglect by the state. Many social phenomena can back up such an argument in spite of the recurrent overoptimistic discourses on the ‘end of the disease’ or the ever-imminent ‘discovery of the vaccine’ that work to obfuscate the lived reality of people living with HIV/AIDS and the sharp inequalities in terms of access to medical attention they are subjected to.

First of all, the biomedical reality of the disease does not seem to be in sync with the socio-cultural reality of the latter. Most gay dating apps, like Grindr, continue to offer HIV status as a point of identification and self-presentation to potential sexual partners testifying to the high relevance HIV holds for gay men. In other words, HIV status continues to generate clearly defined HIV-related identities based on a difference that is far from neutral since it is a difference from the sameness of seronegativity. Being HIV continues to matter to gay men because HIV continues to be imbued with multiple meanings and connotations. In this case, revisiting injurious stereotypes is the privileged road to the collective psyche and a social barometer for tolerance and acceptance. 

People living with HIV/AIDS continue to be perceived as irresponsible, excessive, self-indulgent, and suffering from internalized homophobia. They tend to embody all those backward things that proper ‘modern-day’ respectable gays had to disidentify with in order to gain their current social status and legal rights. In this context, there seem to be literally no people living with AIDS today, HIV is a thing belonging for good to the past or something that only poor faraway -orientalized in the Western eyes- countries suffer from or a misfortune that happens exclusively to other people. At the same time, people living with HIV/AIDS continue to face stigma and discrimination and many of them are forced to live closeted, to say the least.

Another phenomenon that proves that HIV/AIDS is far from over in our cultural imaginary is the emergence from time to time of folk devils, HIV-related social figures, that amid a moral/sexual panic personify our deep-seated and never truly worked-through anxieties and fears regarding HIV as a ‘gay disease’. Just bring to mind the zero patient in the 80s, the barebacker in the 90s, and the PrEP whole in the 2010s. All these figures seem to follow the same pattern: gay men with a sex-driven death wish, gay men whose transgressive sexual desires are to be condemned for the safety of the majority, gay men who somehow render visible our darkest guilty pleasures that rest on breaking the condom code. The ghosts of our HIV past are here and haunt our imagination, govern our fears, and make us turn against each other. This should not come as a surprise. 

After all, in many countries, like Greece, we have never really mourned the loss of both our loved ones and forms of longing and belonging that the pragmatics of transmission made suicidal, like unprotected sex. The devastation of the 80s had been followed by the silence of the 90s since the introduction of the HAART, Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy, which turned a lethal disease into a manageable condition. No monuments, no memorials, no memory, no public ceremonies, no public history, no mourning rituals. All we are left with are a bunch of highly problematic and patronizing films from the 90s, like Philadelphia, that we have grown up watching again and again keeping alive secondhand memories and irrational fears that are supposed to protect us from ourselves.  

And these thoughts lead us to the matter at hand halfway through this article! LGBTIQA+ community, like any other community, seems to be formed via the exclusion of some of its members, via a paradoxical constitutive outside against which the former immunizes itself. We are members of this community, but some of us are more ‘members’ than others. As the demographics of HIV keep changing over time, the burden of embodying this otherness against which the rest define themselves through bonds of recognition and solidarity heavies on the shoulders of different people. Nowadays, at least in Greece, some members of the LGBTIQA+ community are more vulnerable to an HIV infection and suffer more from the HIV-related stigma because they face multiple and interlocking forms of dispossession based on intersectionally entangled identities and structural forms of discrimination. As long as HIV continues to be a marker of difference rather than the common ground for cultivating an inclusive community with no scapegoats and outsiders, LGBTIQA+ politics will not become true coalition politics even though we are bound by the same vulnerability and common history. Heterosexual -cis or trans- sex workers are one of those populations in Greece with whom queers share more than it seems at first sight. As Sarafis, Michael, and Tsounis in their study put it,

'Given the sex work industry's precarious nature, the health and well-being of sex workers should be of interest, yet this is frequently overlooked by researchers and policymakers… Greek socio-legal research reveals that sex workers face stigmatisation and discrimination, societal abuse, legal prosecution, and the absence of health coverage and protection frameworks…'

This article is a celebration of a hard-won legal victory that was announced a couple of months ago and stirred up memories of a long-forgotten ‘scandal’ that monopolized the news back in 2012. During a police operation in Athens, a crackdown on unlicensed brothels and streets caused by a spike in HIV cases and a 'reported' increase in the incidences of customers having unprotected sex with drug-addicted prostitutes for an additional fee, the Health Minister Andreas Loverdos and Minister for Citizen Protection Michalis Chrysochoidis, members of the interim government led by Lucas Papademos, in the run-up to elections of 2012 ordered the arrest of female sex workers who were also subjected to identity checks, medical screenings, and HIV-positive blood tests in the name of ‘ending HIV’. Criminal charges were pressed on the legal basis of attempting to inflict serious bodily and simple harm to the male clientele, for deliberately endangering them by having unprotected sex with them while they knew that they were HIV positive. 

On top of that, under Law no. 2472/1997, an obsolete and nosophobic personal data protection statute, the prosecutor ordered the public release of their names, photographs, reasons for criminal proceedings, and HIV-positive status ‘for the sake’ of public health, for the past clients to come forward and take an HIV test, against the internationally protected patient confidentiality and ban on mandatory testing. In the following weeks, mainstream media covered the story in the most despicable and sensationalist way by circulating the personal details of the allegedly homicidal HIV-positive sex workers who had endangered the lives of innocent heterosexual family men who were nonetheless willing to pay an extra buck for these special services. Drylakis gives an apt description of this media coverage and its sexist underpinnings:

'Those interpellated by the designation of "family men"-whose voices were privileged in the media at the time- were said to be threatened by a bigger danger than poverty and unemployment: their fatal viral infection by a woman. Despite evidence that it is typically clients who pressurise sex workers not to use condoms, sex workers' sexual encounters were treated as their sole agency and responsibility, and their infected bodies were imagined as weapons. In a stereotypical inversion of the gendered passive/active binary, here the man was fantasized as the passive victim of a seductive and deadly female figure who manipulates the male sex drive and threatens the lives of families.'

Once again, the ghosts of our HIV past came out of the closet with disastrous effects. Some of these women have since died disgraced, poor, and stigmatized, including one who reportedly committed suicide due to the disclosure of her personal details. However, all the defendants were subsequently acquitted by Greek courts in 2016 as there was no evidence to prove that they had knowingly exposed their clients to sexually transmitted diseases. The witch-hunting turned out to be a political and legal fiasco that has nonetheless scarred deeply the Greek LGBTIQA+ community which had fallen victim to similar biopolitical tactics in the past decades under the pretense of ‘public health’ and felt that the history repeats itself. However, the community took its distance from this case and for the most part it remained silent about the injustices done. 

Twelve years have passed since, and justice is finally delivered to the victims. Eleven of these women of whom five have since died appealed to the European Court of Human Rights which ruled that the Greek authorities in Greece violated their privacy rights. In particular, the court found that Greek authorities had violated the privacy of two women by forcibly subjecting them to blood tests, and of four of the women by publishing their personal details. It awarded a total of 70,000 euros ($76,000) in damages. In court’s wording,

'The information disseminated concerned the applicants’ HIV-positive status, disclosure of which was likely to dramatically affect their private and family life, as well as social and employment situation, since its nature was such as to expose them to opprobrium and the risk of ostracism…[The prosecutor] had merely ordered the publication of the data in question, without examining the particular situation of each of the applicants or assessing the potential consequences for them of such dissemination of information…According to the principles set out in a circular from the minister of health, although persons engaged in prostitution were among the social groups for which screening for the HIV virus was, exceptionally, authorized, they were not, however, included in the list of cases justifying an exception to the rule that such tests were confidential... The applicants had not had a legal possibility to be heard by the prosecutor before he ruled on the disclosure of their date, nor could they, once the order had been issued, lodge an appeal in order to have it re-examined by the prosecutor attached to the appellate court...'

The shameful law that made all these atrocities legal had a long legal history. After being abolished by Fotini Skopoulis upon his becoming deputy minister of health, it was reinstated by Adonis Georgiadis, minister of health in the NEW DEMOCRACY government only to be abolished again by the Panagiotis Kouroumplis, minister of health in the SYRIZA-ANEL government, which was in power from 2015-19. The 2013 documentary RUINS: Chronicle of an HIV Witch-Hunt directed by Zoe Mavroudi remains a powerful testament to the events that took place in 2012 and one can watch it on YouTube free of charge and with English subtitles. Since 2012, a lot has changed for the better but the stigma remains. Three years later, our community partner, Positive Voice, has founded Red Umbrella Athens in association with other organizations, ‘an Empowerment Center for Sex Workers designed and implemented by people from both the sex workers’ community and other vulnerable social groups.’ Among the services they provide are testing for HIV, hepatitis B & C, and syphilis, sexual health counseling, provision of free condoms and pregnancy tests, direct link to health & welfare services, psychological, social, and legal support, counseling on addiction and harm reduction issues, etc. On their website, one can find a lot of information regarding sex work in Greece. We would like to remind you that by supporting Ecce Homo, you support Positive Voice and Red Umbrella as our community allies via our extensive CSR program. 5% of the price of each purchase is donated to a charity of the consumer’s choice devoted to the advocacy, empowerment, and support of queer community in major European cities. To be clear, this amount does not fall on our customers in any way, and it is rather withheld from the firm’s income.