“Robert P.” and Steven Farmer: The Courts and Media Coverage in Washington State’s First Forcibly Taken HIV/AIDS Blood Test

Monday, January 6, 2020: 11:20 AM
Clinton Room (New York Hilton)
Michael Diambri, University of Vermont
This paper explores the effects and implications of a decision by Judge Charles Johnson—of the King County Superior Court—in 1988 forcing Steven Farmer to undergo involuntary testing for HIV. This was the first decision resulting in an involuntary HIV-blood test in Washington State. Previously, Judge Johnson had convicted Farmer “of two counts of sexual exploitation of a minor and two counts of patronizing a juvenile prostitute” after a bisexual teenager and sex worker—referred to only as ‘Robert P.’—reported Farmer to police in May 1987. Occurring at the height of the AIDS panic, the media sensationalized this case while promulgating conversations about same-sex and intergenerational sexual activity as well as issues of bodily integrity and public health. Engaging with this case, I raise questions about the legal history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s while also furthering the project of what Marc Stein has termed “queer legal history” more generally. This paper engages with both court documents and media accounts to explore how the case’s central queer figures—'Robert P’, and Steven Farmer—were portrayed as abject: subhuman, immoral, schematic, and sinister. In this context, I also consider the ways in which the longstanding understanding of state and local policy as a guarantor of “the people’s welfare” (as described in William Novak’s book of that name) was translated into a mandatory testing regime informed by a panic over both communicable disease and minority sexual practices.
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