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January 26, 2022

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Nevada Legislature updates criminal code on HIV transmission

Connie Shearer

Wade Vandervort

Connie Shearer and Roux pose for a photo Thursday, June 10, 2021.

Connie Shearer was diagnosed with HIV in 1996. The stigma of the disease left Shearer, who is gender nonbinary and prefers the pronouns they and them, suicidal and ended two of their marriages.

In one case, a family member falsely told police that Shearer, who was living in Indiana, had not told their husband they were HIV positive, they said. The allegation triggered an investigation because it was illegal to engage in acts that could transmit HIV without informing the other person.

“He told me that being married to me and that experience made him feel like he was a criminal and that he was married to a criminal, and he couldn’t tolerate it anymore,” Shearer said. “That was my life.”

Shearer’s situation is an example of how HIV-positive people can be targeted criminally.

Lawmakers in Nevada recently changed the criminal code to align the punishment for not informing a sex partner of an HIV diagnosis — previously a class B felony — with other communicable diseases, including COVID-19. The law also covers behaviors that can transmit HIV, such as sharing needles.

Now, instead of facing a felony, offenders will receive a warning on their first offense and can be charged with a misdemeanor for a second offense.

It’s a move Shearer and other proponents hope will help reduce the stigma and isolation surrounding HIV.

In the early years of their diagnosis, Shearer focused on work and their daughter, drawing away from the outside world.

“In the first five years, I attempted suicide. I did everything but actually kill myself,” Shearer said. “I did stay for my daughter, and I think only because my family kept trying to take her from me.”

The Nevada legislation, Senate Bill 275, was sponsored by state Sen. Dallas Harris, D-Las Vegas, who said misinformation about HIV needs to be corrected, including that the virus strictly affects the LGBTQ community.

“No one is safe from possibly getting the disease,” Harris said. “We have to start thinking about all of us together, because our fates and our health are intertwined.”

According to a 2019 report from the state Department of Health and Human Services, 11,769 Nevadans have HIV, about 84% of them men.

The bill passed during the most recent legislative session, which ended May 31, and was signed into law by Gov. Steve Sisolak.

André Wade, director of Silver State Equality, said the new law will help reduce the stigma of an HIV diagnosis.

“The way people view and feel about HIV is wrapped around stigma, so often people don’t even want to have conversations about HIV and treatment and getting tested, because it’s seen as this disease or virus for people who are dirty, who’ve done something wrong, therefore they now have the disease and they should be shunned,” Wade said.

Many people have misconceptions about HIV rooted in misinformation about the virus that was rampant in the 1980s and 1990s, Wade said. At one time, it was even referred to as “gay cancer.”

HIV is eminently treatable and is not a “death sentence,” Wade said.

“We learn from our friends and family and neighbors and whatnot, and if those people are misinformed about something like HIV, it’s going to be continuously people getting misinformation, which has been hard to detangle,” Wade said.

Life expectancy for people who are HIV-positive has increased dramatically as new treatments have become available. According to a 2016 presentation at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, the gap in life expectancy between HIV-positive and HIV-negative people decreased from 44 years in 1996-1997 to 12 years in 2011.

The American Medical Association has called for the repeal of HIV criminalization laws nationwide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, since 2014, California, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan and North Carolina have updated their laws regarding HIV transmission.

The change to the law in Nevada came about after the establishment of the Advisory Task Force on HIV Exposure Modernization in the 2019 legislative session. Harris and Wade serve as co-chairs of the task force.

The 2021 bill extended the task force for the next two years, allowing further examination of possible changes to HIV law.

Harris said she hasn’t identified any HIV-centered legislation for the 2023 session but expects recommendations to come out of the task force.

“There’s definitely always more work to be done,” she said.