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Barbara Wagner | Criminalisation des séropositifs | Didier Lestrade | Tribune libre

Fighting Femmes Positives’ criminal agenda: Letter to David Thorpe, Editor at POZ Magazine

20 June 2005 (

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Paris, 20 June 2005

David Thorpe
Senior Editor, POZ Magazine
Smart + Strong
500 Fifth Avenue, Suite 320
New York, New York 10110-0303

Dear David,

I have just read your article about HIV criminalization in France: Fighting Femmes: HIV criminalization in France.

I was disappointed that although, the web site run by the Comité des familles, a self-help group by and for families facing HIV, is cited in your article, you did not find the time to speak with anyone from the Comité.

I would welcome an opportunity to set the record straight, and to discuss some of the broader issues in the French debate on criminalization.

Your article implies that our campaign to oppose HIV criminalization is a matter of name-calling and/or our presumably immigrant background.

In fact, through the work done by the radio show and web site run by the Comité des familles, it is both positive French and Immigrant women and men of all races (as well as their HIV-negative partners and children) who have not only denounced the disastrous consequences of HIV criminalization for all people living with HIV, but have spoken publicly, in their own names, about their "contamination, its consequences in their daily lives, and how they regard the person who infected them.

Much to our dismay, outside of the work done by our radio show to allow people to speak in their own names, the "debate" has been reduced to an increasingly absurd exchange between white, gay "leaders" claiming that they can speak for *everyone* in the epidemic (whether for or against criminalization), and Barbara Wagner speaking in the names of all women HIVers, or at least those who are heterosexual, white and middle-class.

We can only regret that journalists have consistently ignored these voices (with a few notable, and courageous, exceptions), and that mainstream AIDS groups have gone out of their way to ignore them.

The bottom line is that Lestrade and others defended "shared responsibility" and opposed criminalization in the early 1990s (Lestrade was Act Up’s president when the group organized a sit-in in front of the French legislative Assembly to oppose the previous attempt at criminalizing HIV transmission), when it was gay, white men who were most visibly in the front lines of the epidemic. Now that the epidemic in France is mostly poor people of all colors and that the overall political context in France has shifted rightward (with both "victimization" and repression high on the agenda), Lestrade, Saout and others in the mainstream AIDS organizations (including Act Up Paris, which unlike other branches accepts both pharmaceutical industry and government funding) appear to be willing to sacrifice one of the most significant achievements of the struggle by HIVers in France: protection for HIVers from imprisonment *because of their HIV status* (the argument that it is reckless behavior which sends them to jail is nonsense, as a HIV-negative person who engages in the same reckless behavior would not go to jail!) — if a few HIVers going to prison is necessary to retain public and private funding for their groups, they seem to be ready to accept this in our name but for the sake of their own interests or their personal convictions.

In this political context, Barbara Wagner (to whom I’ve personally expressed sympathy regardless of our political disagreements) appears to be a willing instrument, having put her testimony and her pain — which we share as positive people or as their wives, husbands or children — in the public arena, but with a desperately unclear and increasingly frightening agenda (most recently, she called for mandatory HIV testing for the entire population). My worry is that she may be manipulated by Lestrade, whose media and political activism stems from personal turmoil in the face of the persistence of HIV infection in the white gay community given the apparent failure of traditional approaches to reduce the number of infections in an otherwise privileged social group. Whatever one may think of the criminalization debate, in France the debate itself has only marginalized our needs as families facing HIV, by worsening the public image of people with HIV (increasingly seen as potential "contaminators"), by forcing underground people who take risks, and by ignoring precisely the voices of the people which criminalization activists claim to be "protecting" (ie, straight women).

In practice, our prevention education work for HIV+ couples has already suffered because of the prominence given to HIV criminalization’s advocates: people who had begun to speak out about risk-taking in both short- and long-term relationships have become silent again. Yet it is precisely through open discussion about the reality of sexual practices amongst HIV+ couples that we had, in the past, been able to raise consciousness about prevention and solidarity with those who live with HIV, and, at the end of the day, stopped people from being infected!

Finally, the long history of organizing by positive women and their contribution to the survival of families affected by the virus have been eclipsed, as Lestrade has repeatedly tried to depict Wagner’s activism as the birth of a movement by HIV+ women. In fact, African, Arab and White women have all organized around the issues which matter to them, and if criminalization has never been a goal, the responsibility of men in spreading the virus has always been at the top of the agenda. Within the Comité des familles, women have formed a collective known as "Femmes Plus" (long before Femmes positives appeared on the public scene) which has allowed young women of all races who have just learned their HIV status to find real support, not just the promise of sending their partner or former partner to jail.

In the past, the legitimate anger of HIVers focused on the governments and institutions directly responsible for the propagation of the epidemic. Why this should no longer apply is one point that Lestrade, Wagner and others have neglected to clarify. "Fight AIDS, not people with AIDS" is not just a slogan but the core idea on which to organize to survive and, when the meds and basic rights are there, to thrive. For those of us who know and understand the history of these struggles in France, the least that can be said is that people with HIV being sent to jail cannot possibly help our collective struggles, least of all when it is other people facing HIV who are pushing hard for this to happen, whether it is in the name of morality, public health, or vengeance.

Yours Sincerely,

Reda Sadki


Barbara Wagner en couverture du magazine américan POZ

Barbara Wagner en couverture du magazine américan POZ

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