Advocating for change: Carlisle woman shares experience with nightmare HIV charges

Health

CARLISLE, Pa. (WHTM) — HIV advocates are pushing for changes to Pennsylvania laws. For one Cumberland County woman, the issue is personal after the nightmare she endured because of her HIV status.

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In Pennsylvania, there is no law making it illegal not to tell a sexual partner about HIV status. But prosecutors can use other broader laws to charge people who have HIV.

That’s exactly what happened to Carlisle woman Julie Graham.

“It was such a horrible experience,” Graham said.

She was diagnosed with HIV in 2011. A year later she started dating someone, who she told about her status.

However, when they broke up she says he wanted revenge.

“He said I’m going to tell everybody at work, I’m going to tell everybody in the media, you’re going to get in trouble for this, you’re going to lose your job and all of that happened,” Graham said.

That’s because Pennsylvania law makes it possible for prosecutors to charge people like her.

Steven Bryson is a SERO Legal Fellow with the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania. He’s part of the effort to fight to change the law.

“Disclosure of a person’s HIV status is a moral issue and I agree that people should disclose their status, but that doesn’t mean it should be criminalized,” Bryson said.

Graham was hit with four charges, including sexual assault and reckless endangerment. She faced jail time, huge financial costs, and nearly lost her nursing job.

It all happened despite the fact that she was taking HIV medication that essentially eliminated the risk of transmitting the virus to her sexual partner.

“To be honest with you it threw me down a very dark path. I attempted suicide,” Graham said.

With the help of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, she was able to get the charges expunged. Now she’s fighting for change.

“People living with HIV need to become part of the discussion, not lawmakers trying to get into somebody’s personal lives and their sexual life,” Graham said.

Advocates say the current system actually discourages people from getting tested or treated.

“If somebody doesn’t know their status they can’t be charged for sleeping with somebody and not disclosing. So it puts them at a greater risk for criminalization if they go and get tested if they are seeking treatment,” Bryson said.

They have a lot of work to do, but for Graham, the work has been healing.

“It’s finally turned around. Everything was such a nightmare and then finally it’s better now,” Graham said.

While Pennsylvania doesn’t have a law that criminalizes not disclosing HIV status, it does have specific statutes that mean prisoners and sex workers with HIV can get harsher sentences. Advocates are hoping to change that as well.

You can find out more about the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania here.

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