Does anyone remember Dr. Richard Schabas?
In 1990 Aids Action Now staged a protest against Dr. Richard Schabas, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer. Five hundred demonstrators marched on Queens Park (in February!) demanding Schabas’ resignation. And Ontario’s AIDS service organizations were outraged. Schabas believed that AIDS should be described as a ‘virulent’ disease -- which would have empowered public health officers to quarantine carriers who were ‘knowingly exposing others’ to HIV. Dr. Schabas felt that any HIV positive person who engaged in sexual intercourse -- condom or not – should suffer the threat of quarantine.
Does anything sound familiar about this?
Just a few years later (in 1998) a Canada Supreme Court decision required individuals who are HIV-positive to disclose their HIV status to sexual partners before engaging in activities that pose a risk of transmission. Up to now, 98 people have been charged with crimes involved non-disclosure — almost half of them in Ontario.
Well hey -- I don’t see anybody marching.
In other words, Canada’s laws against what Dr. Schabas (in 1990) called ‘knowingly exposing others to HIV,’ have gone a little farther than the threat of quarantine. Now, HIV positive people – whether they use condoms or not – can be jailed on charges of assault for non-disclosure. Or (like Johnson Aziga of Hamilton) they may even serve a life sentence for murder.
So why doesn’t anybody seem to care?
Is it perhaps because gay men are racist and sexist? You see, in fact, not all who are jailed on the new HIV non-disclosure charges are gay. Some are heterosexual women, and a sizeable portion of high profile cases involve heterosexual men of colour. Could it be that gay men are only concerned about ‘rights’ when it only involves their own?
I think the real reason is this: 24 years ago gay men were much more concerned with the notion of justice than they are today. Now it’s all about gaining the approval of the straight community. These days if you ask a gay man if people should be put in jail for spreading HIV, he will answer -- robot-like -- as most straights do: “But aren’t people who knowingly spread HIV evil?”
Yes, those who do not disclose are sometimes (not always) very bad people. But should they go to jail? Firstly, remember that AIDS is no longer a death sentence – in fact it is now a chronically manageable disease. Secondly, incarceration for non-disclosure actually discourages people from getting tested, and thus encourages the spread of AIDS. Thirdly – and most importantly – jailing people for non-disclosure is not a disinterested legal action: it’s all entwined with racism, sexism, and homophobia.
Back in 1990 we instinctively knew that Dr, Schabas and his ilk were homophobic and anti-sexual -- and assumed they were probably religious fundamentalists. Nowadays we seem fine with newspapers running photos of HIV positive women labeled promiscuous by scandal-mongering journalists, or of black men deemed to be hypersexual ‘dangerous offenders.’ In our eagerness to show straights how much we are willing to condemn promiscuity -- we have tossed some of the most vulnerable in our community directly under the bus. Queers would do well to remember pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous poem:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Socialist/Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Trade Unionist/ Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Jew /Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Or is this -- like our outrage over Dr. Schabas – something gay people would rather forget?