On Tuesday, March 3, HB 1691 was heard in the Judiciary Committee. Sponsored by Rep. Holly Rehder, this bill would modernize our outdated and harmful HIV-specific statutes that criminalize people for acts that pose no risk of HIV transmission. The hearing was scheduled for 4 p.m. or “upon adjournment” of floor debate. With the floor debate lasting until after 7 p.m., HB 1691 was not heard until 8:30 p.m.
The anticipation of the hearing heightened with each passing hour. Our eyes grew strained under the Capitol basement fluorescent lights, and our bodies began to ache as we huddled together on the hard wooden benches and linoleum floors.
Our physical and emotional exhaustion was relieved once the hearing finally began. After hours of waiting, we had to snap action to deliver quick and concise testimony. Our two expert witnesses, LaTrischa Miles and Rob Richardson, had only two minutes to share their stories and express their support for HB 1691, and each subsequent testimony was capped at fifteen seconds. Of the fourteen witnesses who went on record in support of HB 1691 that night, most of them had driven two or more hours to be there, had waited more than four hours to be heard, only for the hearing to be over in a flash. Testimony was provided by the Missouri Family Health Council, Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, AIDS Project of the Ozarks, Vivent Health, National Council of Jewish Women, and the ACLU of Missouri.
While there was an emotional and physical strain in the air that evening, a current of hope flowed between us all as we looked around at who we were sharing the space with. Nearly thirty youth and their caretakers were chattering and comforting one another throughout the evening as we all waited together—in the same hearing that evening, HB 2051 and HB 1721 were also being heard. These bills propose the criminalization of parents and medical professionals for providing gender transition-related care to minors. A shared sense of determination and resolve grew as we gave each other knowing looks and warm smiles. Seeing the courage of the youth who were there to speak out for their own health and dignity reminded us of the future we all deserve. We were tired, we were hungry, but we were all in for justice. We would get through this night together.
While this hearing was important, so much of the work leading up to it has been just as essential. This legislative session alone, the Missouri HIV Justice Coalition has held two Advocacy Days, where we engaged in important face-to-face conversations with Judiciary Committee members. The work of this session builds on a legacy of eight years’ worth of organizing to modernize Missouri’s HIV-specific statutes, dating back to a December day in 2011, when the first meeting of the Missouri HIV Task Force was convened.
Now known as the Missouri HIV Justice Coalition, we will not rest until our state’s HIV-specific statutes are modernized to reflect current science and medicine. We ask you to reach out to members of the House Judiciary Committee by March 10 to express support for HB 1691. (The executive session to vote the bill out of Committee may be held that day!) For more updates on our HIV modernization efforts, you can follow the MO HIV Justice Coalition on Facebook, or send an email to [email protected] to get involved.