HIV Phobia Still On The Books

I've written an op-ed on the resilient Jesse Helms HIV immigration and visitor ban, still uniquely stigmatizing HIV in America's legal system:

I am among the most privileged non-Americans with HIV. Others live in fear of being exposed; many have to hide their medications when entering the country for fear of being discovered by customs or immigration. Couples have been split up and torn apart. International conferences on HIV and AIDS have long avoided meeting in the United States because of the ban, which violates U.N. standards for member states.

This law has lasted so long because no domestic constituency lobbies for its repeal. Immigrants or visitors with HIV are often too afraid to speak up. The ban itself is also largely unenforceable -- it's impossible to take blood from all those coming to America, hold them until the results come through and then deport those who test positive. Enforcement occurs primarily when immigrants volunteer their HIV status -- as I have -- or apply for permanent residence. The result is not any actual prevention of HIV coming into the United States but discrimination against otherwise legal immigrants who are HIV-positive.

I'm hoping that repealing this 1980s hangover - currently included in the PEPFAR renewal - is now feasible. The bill simply takes the HIV visitor and tourist ban from legislation and places it, as with all other medical conditions, at the discretion of the secretary of Health and Human Services. It just makes HIV like any other disease - subject to rational scientific judgment, and not to the fears of two decades ago. Good Republicans - Gordon Smith and Richard Lugar - as well as Democrats - John Kerry mainly - are behind it. Alas, it now appears that this measure is in jeopardy on the Hill. One key senator is Tom Coburn, a doctor who must know that HIV does not deserve to be singled out for special discrimination in the law. If you'd like to contact his office to urge his support for removing the HIV ban, here's the link. Please help.

Obviously, as I explain in the piece, this is personal to me. I'd like to have the ability to stay in America with my husband with security. Right now, it looks increasingly likely that I'll have to relocate at some point to Europe. But I'm one of the most privileged. This is for others more helpless than I, and for everyone with HIV and their families struggling with the stigmas that still hinder effective action. We really can do better.