My own personal history with HIV is at the front of my mind when I think about Michael L. Johnson. Johnson, who is born the year after me in 1991. Johnson, the Lindenwood University student and star athlete. Johnson, who was arrested before graduation and charged with one count of “recklessly infecting another with HIV” and four counts of “attempting to recklessly infect another with HIV,” all felonies in the state of Missouri.
Unlike Johnson, my relationship to HIV is not as personal as having a positive diagnosis. But it is one that involves my uncle, who lived with it. And more than me being a gay man, it relates to my specific location at an intersection that includes my blackness as one avenue, where just this time last year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study that half of black gay men will acquire HIV in their lifetime if current trends continue. It relates to other avenues on that same corner, such as my socio-economic background and my current geographical origin and location in the Deep South, where my identities further pin me as more and more likely to be one of the infected.
When I consider Johnson and the case against him, I consider the fact that whether or not I am infected, I am nevertheless affected. Not at all by Johnson’s personal actions, but the manner in which the state and the American public make of them, his life, and his body.
I don’t know Johnson, but after reading an article in Buzzfeed, I can say that in some way I have been and will continue to be him to some degree. The only black student in a social group or gathering. The student who only has enough money (if that) to take the bus home for the holiday recess instead of a flight or personal vehicle. The black man in a town of mostly whites. The black man noticed and desired simply for the contours of what his queer black body could offer as spectacle. As exotic. As other. As another to disregard when his use value has been reached. As black men who have been humanized solely through our sexuality by the white gaze, intent, and touch, we are passing things.
That is, we are passing things so long as our black bodies that are at once praised and exalted do not come as actual threats. We are passing things so long as we also remain silent things.
This case matters for a number of reasons. First, it matters because Johnson is not one of few who may have not disclosed their HIV status before a sexual encounter, but that he—a black, working class student—has become an emblem of national attack on both black and queer sexuality.
It matters because of the endless stigmatizing images that become attached to black bodies and black people who suddenly become hypervisible when charged with certain matters of unlawfulness, recklessness, and deviance as soon determined by the public and public officials.
It matters because having HIV is not a crime nor a death sentence. It matters because consensual sex between adults is not a crime. It matters especially when so much of the educational system and societal norms in the United States don’t recognize the value of incorporating meaningful sexual education, as opposed to abstinence-based approaches, into school curriculum and other public programming.
Reading about this case and the stories from the various white voices about Johnson was absolutely heartbreaking, for so often the stories from the marginalized are left to linger and mask as evidence and truth by the powerful and the reckless. This is the nature of whiteness.
Johnson sits waiting on his fate to be decided by high courts for doing exactly what white men have been doing for decades. Johnson sits at the intersection of his identities, an empty corner conjoining dark avenues. So many of us are there with him, but so many of us don’t know it.
Consider donating to Michael L. Johnson’s legal defense here: https://www.fundedjustice.com/freemichaeljohnson