By Jay Ray / @jayrayisthename
On July 25, 1985, film legend, Rock Hudson became the public face of AIDS after releasing a statement confirming that he had the disease after a lot of speculation about his health. He died on October 2nd of that year. Ten years later both Eric “Eazy-E” Wright and Bobby Debarge died of AIDS related causes. Both men left important marks on black music and the music business overall during their lifetimes, but in 1995 we were having discussions about HIV and stigma, particularly in the black community.
Thirty years have elapsed since Mr. Hudson’s death and twenty years since both Mr. Wright’s and Mr. Debarge’s deaths. This year, 2015, the conversation about HIV has continued as infection rates continue to climb for Black gay men, but this year’s conversation has been heavily focused on criminalization, as well. Ignited by the trial of Michael Johnson, who in July of this year, was sentenced to 30 years in prison under Missouri’s HIV criminalization laws, our attention to HIV criminalization through the lens of mass incarceration of black men has sparked a tough question - "Is HIV criminalization right?"
On November 17, 2015, film and TV legend, Charlie Sheen announced that he is HIV positive. The ensuing conversation (notely, filled with hate-filled and ignorant statements about HIV) is also again raising the question about HIV criminalization. There are some unconfirmed reports that some of Mr. Sheen’s sexual partners were unaware of his status and potentially put them at risk. Mr. Sheen flatly denies this. At this time, there are no criminal charges pending against Mr. Sheen, and there’s no indication that an investigation is in progress. I should note here that Michael Johnson consistently said he disclosed his HIV status to his sexual partners.
So where do we go from here? Does the Charlie Sheen announcement get us any closer to answering the question “Is HIV criminalization right?” Should people be criminally liable for the choices made during a consensual sexual encounter? I am steadfastly against HIV criminalization, and I don't want to see Michael Johnson in prison or Charlie Sheen under any investigation. I just don't agree with it.
Interestingly, the black music community has remained considerably quiet around the issue of HIV generally in the last 20 years, and completely mum on the issue of Michael Johnson and HIV criminalization. There was a time when our musicians provided the soundtrack to our lives and spoke honestly about issues in our communities. I can’t help but wonder if HIV stigma could be lessened if our pop artists, particularly our black music stars, took as much interest as their predecessors. If there was ever a time to speak, sing and rap about this, now is that time. Back in the day, even The Wu had a song about AIDS. We owe it to Eazy, Bobby, Sylvester and everybody else who's foundations we stand on.