ACLU Files Lawsuit Challenging Decades-old Prostitution Law In Tennessee

Citing that laws requiring individuals who know they are HIV positive to inform sexual partners amounts to discrimination against transgender prostitutes, the ACLU has filed a lawsuit to force Tennessee to strike decades-old public health laws from the books. The laws were enacted at the height of the HIV epidemic when treatment was unavailable and an HIV diagnosis was essentially a death sentence. Today, treatments have been created that can keep HIV undetectable.

In 1991, Tennessee enacted an aggressive law that would charge HIV-positive prostitutes with a felony if they did not disclose their status. In 2010, the law was reworked and is now classified as a violent sexual crime that requires life-long registration on the state’s sex offender registry. There are currently 83 Tennesseans on the registry who have been convicted under the 2010 statute.

Many states have begun the process of re-evaluating public health laws that were created to address the known transmission of HIV or AIDS from one individual to another. A total of 35 states have some type of law meant to criminalize a lack of prior consent. The Centers for Disease Control said in 2022 that many of the laws were outdated and do not reflect current scientific knowledge about the disease. The CDC added that these laws tend to have a disproportionate impact on Black, Latino, and transgender individuals.

The ACLU argues in court filings that laws intended to protect public health have a negative effect on self-reporting by individuals who have contracted the disease. The organization says that in states with aggressive laws targeting prostitution and HIV status, fewer people get tested and even fewer follow the law.

In the case at hand, four women who have all been charged with aggravated prostitution under Tennessee law are claiming discrimination by the state. One of the plaintiffs reports being harassed by neighbors after registering as a violent sex offender which disclosed her HIV status. Another is currently incarcerated. All four have been charged with prostitution-related crimes repeatedly in the past.

Many advocacy groups for transgender, gay, and bisexual people believe that a culture of fear in the workplace limits the availability of jobs. Federal laws prevent employers from discriminating against individuals based on sex or gender along with mental health disorders and transgenderism has been recognized by the courts as a protected class. The mental health diagnosis for someone suffering from transgender ideologies is gender dysphoria and it is a recognized disorder by mental health professionals.

Prostitution and other sex work such as pornography offer lucrative opportunities for transgender individuals to cash in on the fetish some people experience of wanting to be with a transgender person. Sites like Only Fans have opened up opportunities for transgender individuals to make money in sex work without exposing themselves to working the streets.

The ACLU has also recently filed suit against Tennessee over a law that would require businesses to post signage when transgender people were allowed to use the restroom of their choice as a warning to cisgender customers. They claim the law further stigmatizes individuals suffering mental health issues.