Originally published in The Progress Index
Deirdre Johnson wasn’t interested in dating when she met her ex-boyfriend, but decided to give him a chance anyway.
She had dropped out of James Madison University years prior after getting pregnant with her first son, Xayvin, and moved back to Alexandria to live with her parents to support her child.
Her relationship with him was traumatic, to say the least. In the relationship, Johnson endured mental, physical and emotional abuse throughout the relationship. If that wasn’t enough, a year into her relationship she found out she was HIV-positive — and with a baby on the way.
“I was scared, nervous, anxious and concerned,” said Johnson, who now lives in Petersburg. “The concern was not necessarily for me, but my unborn child.”
Johnson’s thought at first was that she had a death sentence. Her previous knowledge of HIV reflected the negative portrayals perpetuated by media and society. Through the stress, she prayed she lived long enough to see her child born HIV-negative.
She’ll never forget the day she had her second child, Xion.
She faced discrimination on almost every step of the birthing process; from having to argue with the doctor into having a C-section rather than a natural birth, to the anesthesiologist yelling her viral status to everyone within an earshot distance on her floor.
The worst of it all, she said, was seeing a “Wear Gloves” sign on her child’s bassinet.
“It made you feel like you were the scum of the earth,” Johnson said. No matter what step she took to ensure her and her child’s safety, she couldn’t hide from her status.
Johnson channeled her energy into her advocacy following the birth of Xion.
She’s worked a series of jobs, one being a peer health educator for Sisters Informing Sisters on the Topic of AIDS, or SISTA, at Virginia Commonwealth University. Through that position, she was able to speak at different programs and events for issues such as drug use, domestic violence and living with HIV.
Deirdre Johnson, an advocate for HIV awareness, cofounded the organization, ECHO VA, or Ending the Criminalization of HIV and Over-incarceration in Virginia.
Fighting for change
Johnson believes the universe, the stars and everything in between were aligned the moment she met Cedric Pulliam.
It wasn’t a romantic feeling, but something equally as strong. Johnson met Pulliam while attending the Positive Women’s Network, a national organization for women living with HIV, conference in 2018 in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Pulliam isn’t HIV-positive himself but has seen the impact HIV and its outdated laws placed on his family. Some of Pulliam’s family members died of HIV, whether transmitted sexually or through shared drug use, in the 1990s. Right before entering college, a relative was prosecuted by an HIV criminalization law in North Carolina and sent to prison for six years.
The two met the second day of the conference, and by the following day, the duo was already game-planning the next steps in HIV advocacy in Virginia. There, Johnson and Pulliam created ECHO VA, or Ending the Criminalization of HIV and Over-incarceration in Virginia.
They deemed themselves true partners-in-change. A power team was formed.
Almost three years later, the coalition has over 30 members across the state. The group dedicates itself to doing everything possible to uplift and secure a better future for those living with HIV, including throwing themselves into the “tortuous” legislative process of streamlining better bills.
A bill of hope
The Sunday after the General Assembly was the only day off for Johnson and Pulliam. Ever since the beginning of the General Assembly, the duo and the rest of ECHO VA have been advocating for Senate Bill 1138.
SB 1138 is the first step to modernizing the current HIV laws within Virginia. Before the new legislation, those who were aware of their viral status — whether it was HIV, hepatitis B or C or syphilis — but did not disclose, could be charged as a Class 6 felony, and potentially serve up to five years in prison.
People living with HIV who attempt to donate blood, organs or tissue could also be charged with a Class 6 felony.
For years, Black Virginians have been disproportionately affected by HIV. Despite making up about 20 percent of the state population, Black people in Virginia made up 58 percent of the persons living with HIV in 2019, according to state data.
Petersburg, while being one of the smallest localities in central Virginia, is among the top four areas with the highest numbers of new HIV diagnoses and rates. In 2019 alone, Petersburg city alone had the highest rate of persons living with HIV, coming in at almost 1,300 per 100,000 people.
The city saw a massive peak in 2015 when 33 cases were reported, but have been on the decline ever since with only eight new cases being reported in 2019.
In 2018, Black women, specifically, were 14 times more likely than their white counterparts to have the virus, whereas Black men were only five times more likely.
HIV laws also affect people who use drugs and sex workers as well. If a sex worker or a drug user were to be found in any kind of crime, they were subjected to mandatory HIV testing.
“When the HIV laws were put in place, they were based on what is now outdated science, and an outdated understanding of how HIV impacts people and view these laws,” said Democratic Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond.
Introduced by McClellan and fellow Democratic Sen. Mamie Locke of Hampton, SB 1138 will reprimand the transmission of all potential STIs with the intent to transmit, stated by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention instead of only HIV, hepatitis and syphilis. The bill’s original goal was to lower the punishment from a Class 6 felony to a Class 1 misdemeanor, but the House of Delegates retained the previous punishment.
The bill will also roll back the punishment of selling or donating organs, tissues, body fluids and blood from individuals with HIV or hepatitis B or C. Sex workers and people involved with drugs will have the option to test for sexually transmitted infections if the bill is signed, Pulliam said.
The final bill passed last Saturday in both houses with 55-44 in the House of Delegates and 23-16 in the Senate. The bill is now on its way to Gov. Ralph Northam to sign, amend or reject by the end of the month. If signed, the bill will go into effect on July 1.
The bill may have passed in assembly, but the work isn’t over, says Johnson.
“We still know we have work to do, whether it’s now or if it’s going to be in the next few years,” Johnson said, looking back at years of zealous activism.
“We are trying to make it our darnedest to make [Virginia] a safer place to live.”
— Tamica Jean-Charles covers all things social justice for The Progress-Index. You can find her on Twitter @thisistamica. You can also reach out to her at [email protected]