Fourth annual Genderfest celebrates diversity, looks into Canadian law

Jessica Whitbread and Jonny Mexico wrap up Genderfest’s opening event, a free screening of Consent: HIV Non-disclosure and Sexual Assault Law. THE PROJECTOR/ Rachel Carlson

Jessica Whitbread and Jonny Mexico wrap up Genderfest’s opening event, a free screening of Consent: HIV Non-disclosure and Sexual Assault Law. THE PROJECTOR/ Rachel Carlson

Genderfest is entering its fourth and largest year of DIY events and discussions that focus on queer identity, history and culture.

The opening event zoned in on Canadian law. On Jan. 28 at the University of Winnipeg, Consent: HIV Non-disclosure and Sexual Assault Law premiered. The film was followed by a discussion led by Jessica Whitbread, community relations and mobilization manager at International Community of Women Living with HIV (ICW).

Consent examines Canada’s HIV non-disclosure law, which requires people who live with HIV to disclose their HIV status to sexual partners when there’s a “realistic possibility” of transmitting the virus, according to Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange. Non-disclosure can result in a charge of aggravated sexual assault, the most severe charge of sexual assault under Canadian law.

“When it comes to criminalization, we need to have these difficult conversations. They’re not easy and it’s a process that you go through,” said Whitbread. “It’s about making space to have these conversations and seeing how the issues affect everyone.”

As someone who has lived with HIV for 15 years, Whitbread said criminalization of HIV non-disclosure doesn’t fit her personal experience or the experiences of the people she knows who are living with HIV.

“The science tells us now and my own doctors tell me now that my viral load is approaching zero as is the chance of transmission and that’s without a condom and if I’m having sex with a man,” she said. “It’s hard to think about how that would even be thought of as risk great enough to be charged with anything, let alone aggravated sexual assault.”

The charge and the conviction of aggravated sexual assault serves to further marginalize and endanger people living with HIV, said Whitbread.

“[If convicted] you walk around the rest of your life as a sex offender and you don’t really have any tools for community support and it’s difficult,” she said. “Every person I know who has died with HIV has committed suicide.”

When it comes to intimate partner violence, Whitbread said she’s seen the non-disclosure law used to force women to stay in abusive relationships.

“Many of the women I know had their partner or their lover use their HIV status against them and said if you leave me no one will love you, or I’m going to call the police and tell them that you didn’t disclose to me.”

The screening stressed a safe discussion around a topic that isn’t so black and white. Creating inclusive spaces, like this, that are part celebration and part difficult discussion inspired Jonny Mexico to found the festival.

“It spoke to the needs that I had as an individual and like-minded people who also felt that same way— that they wanted to see different things and different representations and put on their own events without restrictions,” said Mexico.

While at times the discussion could be difficult, it also encouraged hope, empowerment and community mobilization through Love Positive Women: Romance Starts at Home (LPW). From Feb. 1 to 14, LPW invites people to share love and support with women living with HIV.

“Love Positive Women started as a response to that isolation and that lack of love and intimacy that women with HIV experience all around the world,” said Whitbread. “With LPW, I wanted to create a holiday to celebrate all the women in our lives and in our communities who don’t get to hear those things.”

The festival runs until Feb. 20 and features more than 15 free or low-cost events from dance parties to workshops. Mexico said the festivals growth is all because of community interest and support.

“The growth is attributed directly to the individuals who are involved in putting on the specific events,” said Mexico. “Genderfest doesn’t put on every single event, we just throw up the flag every year and we encourage community members to participate and create their own spaces and their own events.”