Oklahoma Must Decriminalize HIV

I want to start by acknowledging I am not a person living with HIV in Oklahoma, but I care deeply for all Oklahomans – whether or not we have the same political views. This deep passion for my community and those living with HIV comes from the understanding I have on a couple of things I know to be true about Oklahoma: 

  1. We have one of the highest rates per capita of incarceration in the world and we are no safer as a state for it. 
  2. Criminalizing a medical condition or disease creates a barrier so folks aren't willing to seek the life-saving medical treatment they deserve because of a punishment-based system for getting sick. 
  3. Oklahoma has high rates of criminalization because we invest in the imprisonment of our people rather than making an investment in the lives of our citizens. 

In the spring of 2022, a constituent asked me about the possibility of running an HIV decriminalization bill through the Oklahoma legislature and that one request led me down path of reflection and investigation. 

Thinking through running this legislation instantly reminded me of the first HIV outbreak in rural Oklahoma. I believe it was the summer of 2011, my mother was telling me about the outbreak, not just to make sure I was careful, but to make sure I was aware of what was going on in my community. My foundation of HIV and AIDS awareness comes from my mother and her background in public health and community care. When my office started researching HIV in Oklahoma, we ran across an article by the Oklahoma State Department of Health specifically highlighting that "Oklahoma is 1 of 7 states in the U.S. with the highest rural burden of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)". Our governor is always talking about being a "Top 10 State", and we are continuously top 10 in the worst things that lead to horrible outcomes for Oklahomans

The Oklahoma State Department of Health knows firsthand the impact of the stigmatization of health care, which is likely why their community outreach focused on free at home testing and creating a place where folks were less likely to know other people’s status. 

Medical advancements have shown us that living a strong vibrant life with HIV is possible. One of the biggest take-away’s from my recent community interim study was a statement made during the UCLA Williams Institutes presentation: no matter whether you are HIV positive or negative, everyone has a status. 

HIV and AIDS is not just a virus for gay men, or the queer community as a whole - we should all be getting tested after every new sexual partner. In addition to protecting yourself, getting tested also helps to end the stigma around sexually transmitted infections (STIs). 

Our state is at a time when rural health care in Oklahoma is vanishing, putting a strain on metropolitan healthcare in Oklahoma. We should be making sure rural Oklahomans have access to the most comprehensive and destigmatized healthcare, but instead politicians are readily ripping away access and for no other reason than to punish folks for getting sick rather than creatively widening access to healthcare systems and funding. 

It is my honor to work on starting state level conversations about healthcare access, funding, and creative community care – but it’s also so empowering to see institutions like the Oklahoma State Department of Health make sure they are amplifying access to destigmatized health care.