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Home » Living With HIV & AIDS » Times Have Changed, HIV Criminalization Laws Should Too.

Since the 1980s, the HIV/AIDS landscape has undergone significant changes with dramatic improvements in the health and lifespan of people living with HIV. However, a lack of understanding of the virus remains — specifically misconceptions from the ‘80s decade that led to widespread stigmatization and discrimination against people living with HIV. 

How have the ‘80s-era myths continued to flourish in the present day? One blatant reason is that misinformation is cemented into state laws nationwide. 

The majority of the United States has outdated HIV criminal codes, with many citing debunked science on HIV. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 34 states have laws that criminalize HIV exposure, and “Many laws are now outdated and do not reflect our current understanding of HIV … Further, these laws have been shown to increase stigma, exacerbate disparities, and may discourage HIV testing.”

For example, in Louisiana, a person living with HIV can receive a felony conviction and time in prison without proof of intention to expose HIV or evidence of transmitting the virus.

HIV criminal policies are not just limited to state laws; they also have severe implications within the U.S. military. Ken Pinkela, a former Army lieutenant colonel, pledged his life to defend the rights and freedoms of people in the United States. He never thought that his own rights would be taken away after serving his country for 29 years, all due to claims based on outdated HIV criminal laws. Pinkela was dismissed from the Army and criminalized for an allegation of consensual sex because he was an HIV-positive servicemember.

“Any law or policy on a health status, like HIV, should uphold the rights and dignity of the people affected,” stated Pinkela, who is now an advocate for the “HIV Is Not A Crime” movement as a Council of Justice Leader for The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF). “When a law potentially criminalizes behaviors that pose no actual risk of HIV exposure, it sends the message that our country prioritizes fear and hysteria over evidence-based understanding and compassion.”

Reversing outdated laws and stigma

However, progress is being made to reverse these laws nationally and state-by-state. ETAF, alongside national partners including the Health Not Prisons Collective, the Center for HIV Law & Policy, and the Williams Institute, has made tremendous strides in modernizing these antiquated laws. Ongoing efforts include grassroots mobilization of AIDS-service organizations and coalitions to change the laws from within each state, which has proven to be instrumental in changing the local stigma and education disparities of HIV.

We have seen recent success in states carrying the harshest criminal penalties, including Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia. In July 2023, the state of Tennessee removed criminal HIV exposure from the list of offenses that require sex offender registration. Thanks to this change, ETAF’s Council of Justice Leader, Lashanda Salinas, was the first woman to celebrate her removal from the sex offender registry.

“I’m so proud of our community and that we’ve finally made some progress that directly changes my life as a person living with HIV for the better,” Salinas stated. “I hope that we can continue to modernize HIV policies in every state without setbacks due to ignorance. We are still educating lawmakers, media, and people in power about the science and treatment. It’s a huge education issue across the board.”

To learn more and support the HIV Is Not A Crime movement, please visit

HIV Is Not A Crime is made possible by a grant from Gilead Sciences, Inc.

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