Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Thursday signed a bill that decriminalizes HIV transmission, but advocates continue to call for the removal of a felony penalty left in place.
“Although we see this as a victory, we acknowledge the call of people living with HIV in Virginia to continue to fight to change the criminal penalty level of the modernized law from a felony to a misdemeanor level,” said Cedric Pulliam, co-founder of the ECHO VA Coalition, in a press release. “And we accept that fight and will continue efforts until this has been successfully accomplished.”
Senate Bill 1138, sponsored by Sens. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton) and Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), removes HIV from a list of “infectious biological substances” under the infected sexual battery section of the state code.
Supporters say this change will reduce stigma and other challenges faced by Virginians who are HIV positive and modernizes Virginia Code in accordance with current understanding about the disease and current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As the bill advanced through the General Assembly, the Virginia Senate lowered the penalty for HIV sexual transmission from a felony to a misdemeanor. The House of Delegates, and now the governor, kept the felony punishment in place.
Equality Virginia and HIV advocacy groups ECHO-VA, Positive Women’s Network-USA, and the Sero Project on Thursday stated in a press release that they approved of Northam’s signing the decriminalization bill into law, but they were disappointed the felony penalty was not removed.
“We’re thankful for the many advocates who shared their lived experiences and pushed for changes to Virginia’s HIV laws,” said Equality Virginia Executive Director Vee Lamneck in the released statement, which included a report Northam commissioned that found Black Virginians were almost seven times as likely to be living with HIV in 2015 than white Virginians.
“This new law is an important step towards reducing stigma and breaking down barriers to HIV care and prevention,” Lamneck said. “Moving forward, Equality Virginia remains committed and determined to educate and advocate for removing the felony penalty.”