Mayoral Candidates on HIV in NYC: What About Stigma?

By Iván Espinoza-Madrigal

Since New York City is the epicenter of the domestic HIV epidemic – and carries the attendant individual, community, and economic costs – all New Yorkers should know whether the mayoral candidates are committed to tackling the causes and consequences of HIV.

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, Legal Director

Last week, a slate of New York City mayoral candidates – former Councilmember Sal Albanese, former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, Randy Credico, NYC Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, NYC Comptroller John Liu, former NYC Comptroller Bill Thompson, and former Congressman Anthony Weiner – participated in a forum on HIV issues hosted by Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC). Since New York City is the epicenter of the domestic HIV epidemic – and carries the attendant individual, community, and economic costs – all New Yorkers should know whether the mayoral candidates are committed to tackling the causes and consequences of HIV. Unfortunately, the candidates missed some of the critical issues.

The candidates seemed unfamiliar with the number of people with HIV who currently serve on the HIV Health and Human Services Planning Council of New York, which is charged with developing spending priorities for HIV-related services. Almost half of the Planning Council's members are living with HIV, and their opinions and experiences meaningfully inform resource allocation in New York. And there was only one reference to HIV stigma, despite the persistent public perception that HIV is the consequence of an individual's deviant behavior. This sad stereotype perpetuates shame and discourages people from knowing their status and seeking lifesaving treatment.

Silence on stigma is unacceptable, particularly when policy makers' stunted understanding and skittishness about HIV, sex, and sexuality create obstacles to progress in prevention and overall community health. In New York City, for example, while the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene distributes free condoms to prevent HIV, the Police Department confiscates condoms and uses them as evidence of sex work and criminal wrongdoing. It would have been refreshing to see some leadership from a mayoral candidate on HIV stigma, discrimination, and the harm that ignorance about HIV and sexual health perpetuates in New York City.

Moving forward, it would be helpful to hear the candidates' views on HIV criminalization – the use of criminal law to penalize people living with HIV for conduct that would be indisputably legal if they did not get tested or know their status. This issue has generated considerable public and media attention, most recently concerning the trial of Nushawn Williams in New York. We should hear the mayoral candidates' views on whether a 19-year-old should be locked up for decades – or life – for having sex while HIV positive.

As mayoral campaigns move forward, we should ask our next Mayor: Should we be making sure that all of our youth, particularly those in state care who rely on us for their basic health needs, have access to comprehensive, LGBT-inclusive sexual health care and capacity-building resources? And should we be prosecuting people with HIV for conduct that would be completely legal if they avoid getting tested? We would really like to know our next Mayor's position on these important issues.