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Ohio has six laws that penalize people living with HIV. Advocates want to change that.

Not disclosing positive HIV status to partner could be felonious assault under state law
Adam Reilly HIV testing
Adam Reilly Caracole
Posted at 6:13 PM, Apr 12, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-12 18:13:07-04

CINCINNATI — On the desk in front of Adam Reilly, there’s a comic book. It’s called: “The adventures of healthy penis.” Pinned to the bulletin board behind him, an advertisement for his work says: “A healthy penis knows its status.”

Next to that, there are pictures of Reilly in drag. There’s also a picture of him with a dog and a photo of him as a baby. Reilly works for Caracole, a nonprofit AIDS organization in Northside. He oversees testing programs in Cincinnati for sexually transmitted diseases – including HIV.

And he’s upset.

"People don't judge you when you have cancer,” Reilly says. "But people judge you when you have HIV, because they have this preconceived notion of who you are.”

Reilly is talking about Hamilton County’s goal of eliminating the HIV epidemic by 2030. He doesn’t think it will happen. And he’s upset about why.

Ohio has six laws that penalize people living with HIV. Laws that could turn talking to someone about sex into a felony. Laws that could turn consensual sex into felonious assault.

“All that does is stigmatize people,” Reilly says. "I've met a lot of people over the years who've been put in jail for no reason other than their HIV status.”

Reilly says testing is easier and more available than ever before, but his clients often refuse it. They don’t want to know.

He says that hurts the entire community.

Adam Reilly HIV testing
Adam Reilly doesn't believe Hamilton County will hits its goal of ending the HIV epidemic because of what he calls outdated laws in Ohio.

More than 1 million people in America have HIV. In Hamilton County, there were more than 3,000 people living with the virus in 2021, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

In 2023, there were more new cases of HIV here than the year before.

"The stigma is the No. 1 issue that's keeping things from changing,” Reilly said. “And the laws are real fuel for that stigma.”

Attorney Kate Mozynskihas been researching criminal cases involving HIV laws in Ohio for more than 3 years. The result of her work is a new study from Equality Ohio and the Ohio Health Modernization Movement.

Researchers with the advocacy groups found at least 26 cases where HIV laws were used to charge people in Hamilton County over the last six years. And 214 throughout Ohio.

Even if the crime has no chance of spreading the virus.

"I was surprised how often these were enforced,” Mozynski said.

Hamilton County prosecutors have defended these laws in the Ohio Supreme Court before. They argued they're meant to prevent the transmission of the virus.

In 2017, the Supreme Court agreed.

A spokesman for the Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office declined an interview request for this story, but sent a prepared statement in response to WCPO’s questions.

"Changes to the law are matters for the general assembly and the people of Ohio to decide,” said Matthew Broo, spokesman for the prosecutor’s office. "The prosecutor's office will follow whatever revisions to the law are made."

And changes could be coming.

Earlier this year, the Justice Department sued the state of Tennessee after finding its HIV laws violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The DOJ is currently investigating Ohio after similar complaints here.