“People living with HIV should not be treated as violent sex offenders for the rest of their lives solely because of their HIV status.”
In a stern statement from Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, with the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, the department alleges that Tennessee’s decades-old aggravated prostitution statute violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, adding that, “Tennessee’s aggravated prostitution law is outdated, has no basis in science, discourages testing and further marginalizes people living with HIV.”
The ADA is the landmark 1990 federal law prevents discrimination against disabled people on everything from employment to parking to voting. HIV and AIDS are considered disabilities under the ADA because they substantially hinder life activities.
According to a report by the Associated Press (AP), the DOJ letter was addressed to Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director David Rausch and Shelby County District Attorney Steven Mulroy and details several of the struggles of those with aggravated prostitution convictions — A lifetime sex offender registration can stop people from visiting with their grandchildren, revoke job offers, and severely limit housing options — One person shared that they were barred from taking a course to get a general education diploma because children might be present in the building.
The decades-old law isn’t new for those fighting for LGBTQ rights and freedoms in Tennessee. The DOJ letter comes after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Transgender Law Center filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the law in federal court, earlier this year.
Post by @aclu_nationwideView on Threads
The AP also cites prostitution has long been criminalized as a misdemeanor in Tennessee.
In 1991 — as the AIDS epidemic provoked panic and prevalent misinformation over prevention — Tennessee lawmakers enacted an aggravated prostitution statute, which was a felony and applied only to sex workers living with HIV. This law was later reclassified in 2010 as a “violent sexual offense,” requiring those convicted to face lifetime sex offender registration, according to the AP.
Currently, court documents reveal more than 80 people in Tennessee are registered for “aggravated prostitution.”
The department is calling on the state to not only stop enforcing the law, but also remove those convicted under the statute from the sex offender registry and expunge their convictions. The agency also says Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee should introduce legislation to repeal the law.
The move by the Justice Department helps to break HIV stigma.
As-outlined in GLAAD’s 2023 State of HIV Stigma Report, an overwhelming majority of Americans agree with criminalizing the non-disclosure of an HIV status, which further stigmatizes and discriminates against people living with HIV.
Currently, 35 states criminalize HIV exposure.
After more than 40 years of HIV research and significant biomedical advancements to treat and prevent HIV transmission, many state laws, including Tennessee are now dangerously outdated and do note reflect our current understanding of HIV, especially science-backed realities.