Oklahoma’s Congress has taken a long and searching look at policies about intimate topics such as sex, pornography, human trafficking and rape during its current legislative session. Some laws, such as one concerning human trafficking, have been updated. Others, such as a bill on the effects of pornography, are stalled in the House or Senate. With so much buzz about the birds and the bees, it seems a fitting time for Congress to update Oklahoma’s archaic laws concerning HIV/AIDS.
HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus and is spread through some body fluids of infected people such as blood, breast milk, vaginal and rectal fluids and semen. HIV-positive body fluid has to come into contact with open wounds or membranes (think mouth, vagina, and so on) in order to spread. HIV can lead to AIDS, which stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.
HIV/AIDS tears down the body’s immune system, causing infections to become more common and more serious. HIV/AIDS is not untreatable, and with proper care, the infection can be treated with medication and normal life can go on. Scientists have yet to find a way to “cure” HIV/AIDS, and once diagnosed, a person will always have the virus or syndrome. That does not mean that HIV-positive people will infect everyone (again, it’s relatively difficult to casually infect others), and HIV-positive people can still lead long and healthy lives.
There are a number of laws that deal with HIV in one way or another. One law focuses on the knowing infection of another, and there are precautions in place for health workers who encounter HIV in their line of work and need to be tested from time to time. These laws are straightforward ways to ensure that people can remain safe and healthy when facing the risk of infection. In terms of education, though, HIV laws are useless at best.
Currently, the law does not specify a great many things about HIV/AIDS education in Oklahoma. Students must receive some sort of education on the prevention of AIDS, but that information is left mostly to the discretion of the schools. AIDS education is limited and cannot be allowed to drag on for weeks or months in schools. That education must teach students that homosexual activity, promiscuity and drug use involving needles increase the likelihood of a person becoming infected. The law goes so far as to demand that students learn that the best way to avoid becoming infected is to avoid the above behaviors.
While this is true, the law creates a sense of shame around these activities. Moreover, much like abstinence-only sex education, telling people not to do things simply doesn’t work. The most effective way to go about the problem is to inform people of the risks of an act and then tell them how to best protect themselves. Miraculously, this is almost exactly what a proposed update on the law seeks to do.
Senate Bill 246 puts an emphasis on the statistics and facts known about HIV/AIDS, setting a higher standard for education and requiring medically accurate information for educational lessons. It strikes out the line concerning homosexuality as a leading cause of contracting HIV and adds a section that requires schools to inform students that the best thing to do after engaging in risky behavior (sex, needle use, and similar acts), is to get tested regularly and to stay aware of their own health. The regulations lessen the emphasis on drug use and promiscuity as morally wrong, and shift the focus instead to meeting students where they are at and keeping them safe as they grow.
This bill is a necessary update to the modern discussion surrounding HIV/AIDS. The update would promote acceptance of the past and honest education and celebrate a future that is closer than ever to achieving equality. No one should be uninformed about the risks involved in the decisions they might make.
Let’s not kid ourselves here, either. “No one” very much includes same-gender attracted youth who could benefit from knowing more about HIV, as the virus is a large part of their history and its stigma will likely continue to haunt them. The HIV/AIDS crisis of the late 20th century was rooted in society’s reluctance to face an illness that devastated the gay community. HIV is not exclusive to the LGBT community, but it is highly associated with it, and so acceptance of HIV-positive people and their illness is often difficult for society. To move forward, Oklahoma needs to accept the fact that HIV can happen to anyone, and take out the language specifying homosexualty, and not any other sexuality, as a leading factor in contracting HIV.
Oklahoma’s HIV education laws are part of a homophobic system that treats gay men with undue suspicion. A prime example of this is the Federal Drug Administration’s recommended regulations for blood donation. They suggest that no blood be accepted from men who have had sex with men in the past 12 months, or from women who have had sex with men who have had sex with men in the past 12 months. It would make sense, except for the amount of screening that donated blood goes through, and the fact that people of any sexual orientation can get HIV. Lesbians, bisexuals, and heterosexuals are all vulnerable groups. I repeat: straight people can get sick too.
Homophobic policies at the state and federal level are all the more reason for Oklahoma’s education laws to be updated. HIV is stigmatized, and a large part of that stigma comes from homophobia. To educate children, to raise them with the tools and knowledge to protect themselves, is vital. To teach them that independently of judgement about their sexual orientation is arguably just as vital. Children should not be ashamed of who they are, and HIV should be addressed seriously, thoughtfully and without the social stigma of its history. We cannot divorce present attitudes towards HIV from the history of the virus, but we can create a future that does not place the same phobias and prejudices on those who are HIV-positive.