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HIV Doesn't Discriminate, But People & Criminalization Laws Do: An Interview With Pedro Zamora Fellow Jonathan Reveil

Why do you, personally, care about HIV?

Growing up in a Haitian household, at a young age, my parents often told me how at the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic back in 1983, Haitians were branded members of the “4-H Club” (hemophiliacs, heroin users, homosexuals, and Haitians) and were unfairly stigmatized for acquiring and spreading the virus. It is interesting to note that, rather than specific behavioral factors, Haitians were the only group unjustly singled out based on nationality. The damage was immediate. Already ascribed labels of “boat-people” here in America, this new categorization of being diseased and dangerous was devastating for my community.

Despite removing people of Haitian descent from a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report in 1985, Haitians continued to carry the toll this discrimination inflicted on many of us. Unfortunately, Haitians are still being reminded of this unjust treatment that took decades to address. As recently as 2018, Haiti, El Salvador and the continent of Africa were called “shithole countries”, by President Trump and Haitians were singled out and again said to “all have AIDS.” The notion of associating the virus with people of Haitian descent proves there’s still much work to be done to educate, de-stigmatize, and remind people that, regardless of how one may politically or socially identify, the “H” in HIV stands for humxn and it doesn’t discriminate. Preventing history from repeating itself is what initially ignited my passion to care about HIV. This same energy continues to fuel my advocacy today.

What aspects of HIV policy are you most passionate about?

I am passionate about addressing the structural and social determinants of health – the laws, policies, and practices that promote or constrain one’s sexual, reproductive, emotional, and economic wellness. Over the years, through various professional and volunteering opportunities, I became acutely aware of the tension and intricate relationship between public health and criminal justice systems. I realized how HIV criminalization laws, for instance, discriminatorily prosecute people living with HIV (who are often members of historically oppressed groups) and deter people from seeking testing and current care strategies. Research in this arena has shown that people with a history of incarceration have higher rates of infectious diseases and substance use disorders than the general population. While HIV is no longer a death sentence, for many oppressed communities, the epidemic is a prison sentence.

For these many reasons and more, my focus is around intersectional HIV advocacy work that strives to tackle the role our criminal justice system plays as a driver of health disparities and the need to merge the efforts of public health and criminal justice systems to promote healthy, safe, and prosperous communities. Beyond HIV criminalization, I am also passionate about equitable access to HIV treatment and care, biomedical prevention strategies such as PrEP and PEP, youth leadership, and engaging religious leaders in HIV stigma reduction. They’re all connected.

How was this experience shaped or impacted your career goals?

Overall, this was really an eye-opening experience for me. I fell in love with the fellowship and the people I worked with. Most importantly, I appreciated the opportunity to further explore my interests in public health, criminal justice and public policy. It felt amazing to be heard and actually have the majority of my recommendations actualized. I am still unsure of what the future holds for me career-wise, but I am walking away from this experience with a deeper commitment to keep serving underserved communities, expand my knowledge and abilities while strengthening relationships that will enable me to address health outcomes of racial/sexual/gender minority groups.

Do you think we’ll see an end to the epidemic in your lifetime?

Absolutely! I am optimistic that ending the HIV epidemic is entirely within our power, but only if we dismantle the historical, social and structural barriers that prevent the hardest hit communities from accessing the much-needed resources required to address the epidemic in their communities.

What advice do you have for future fellows?

My experience at AU has truly demonstrated the tremendous brilliance and passion of my fellow colleagues. They constantly challenged me with new concepts, new things to learn, and new assignments. To future fellows, I will say that there is still an urgent need for young POC in underserved communities to be involved in policy and political leadership. More than ever, our voices are needed to help shape and promote laws and policies that equitably affect our well-being and the sexual, reproductive, emotional, and economic health of our communities. My advice is to take advantage of the mentorship and everything that the Zamora fellowship is able to teach you. The staff is very accessible and always happy to help!

Favorite quote or personal mantra:

My personal mantra is to always lead with love and justice.


Posted By: Jonathan Reveil, AIDS United Pedro Zamora Policy Fellow - Friday, December 13, 2019

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