Tennessee Sued For Persecution Of Prostitutes

Civil rights advocates last Tuesday filed a challenge to Tennessee’s aggravated prostitution statute claiming that the law discriminates against those with HIV, the Associated Press reported.

The ACLU and the Transgender Law Center filed suit in the US District Court in Memphis on behalf of four plaintiffs and OUTMemphis, an LGBT nonprofit group. The plaintiffs argue that since HIV is a protected disability, a law singling out HIV-positive individuals for harsher penalties violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

While prostitution in Tennessee has long been a misdemeanor, in 1991 state lawmakers approved a felony aggravated prostitution statute for HIV-positive prostitutes. The law was later reclassified in 2010 to require those convicted to be placed on a lifetime offender registry.

Last year, the CDC described laws criminalizing HIV exposure as “outdated,” explaining that the laws do not comport with what is currently understood about the virus. The CDC also claimed that minority communities, particularly gay men, are disproportionately affected by the laws.

In recent years, some states have taken steps to repeal HIV statutes. In 2021, Illinois repealed all of its HIV-specific laws while Virginia and New Jersey repealed all HIV-specific felonies.

Named as defendants in the lawsuit are Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti, Department of Corrections Commissioner Frank Strada, and Director David Rausch of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations.

In the lawsuit against Tennessee, the plaintiffs allege that the states with HIV-related laws on the books are contributing to the lingering stigma around HIV that discourages testing and voluntary disclosure.

In a statement last week, OUTMemphis executive director Molly Quinn said with the stigma of HIV “becoming a thing of the past,” it is time for state laws to “catch up.” She said the Tennessee statute provides “zero benefit to public health and safety.”