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New National AIDS Strategy Will Address Discrimination Against Those Living with HIV/AIDS

Ian S. Thompson,
Senior Legislative Advocate,
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July 12, 2010

The Obama administration will unveil a first of its kind national AIDS strategy on Tuesday, which took 15 months of work to complete. In a preview in Monday’s New York Times(which has obtained an advance copy of the national strategy), the administration plans to focus most intensively on reducing the number of new annual HIV infections, which currently stands at roughly 56,000, as well as increasing the number of people receiving care and treatment.

Recognizing those who have been disproportionately impacted in this country by the disease, the strategy calls for more attention and resources to be directed towards gay and bisexual men, who account for over half of the new infections each year, as well as to African-Americans, who account for 46 percent of those living with HIV.

Particularly noteworthy from a civil liberties and civil rights prospective is the strategy’s recognition of the persistent discrimination those living with HIV face, and the harm it does to efforts to fight the disease and limit its spread. The strategy states:

The stigma associated with H.I.V. remains extremely high…People living with H.I.V. may still face discrimination in many areas of life, including employment, housing, provision of health care services and access to public accommodations.

The administration goes on to state that they plan to strengthen enforcement of civil rights laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), to protect those with HIV/AIDS. Of particular note, former ACLU legislative counsel and current EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum was a principal drafter of the ADA while working for the ACLU.

The issue of discrimination against those with HIV is something the ACLU has been very active in over the years. For example, the ACLU currently has a complaint pending before the Equal Employment Opportunity Counselor for the Eastern Region of the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), charging that TSA violated its own policies barring discrimination against those with disabilities when it refused a job as baggage screener to an applicant simply because of his HIV status.

Knowing what your rights are in this area is critically important. Click here for a copy of HIV and Civil Rights – Know Your Rights in the Workplace.

Michael Lamarre was told that the reason for his ultimate rejection, despite successfully completing a rigorous application process, was because his HIV status made him more susceptible to viruses and infections and that it was for his own benefit, despite the fact that medical experts and his own doctor said he is no more likely to catch a cold or virus than anyone else. Misinformation and outdated stereotypes about those who have HIV remain a far too common daily reality for those who live with the disease, including in our nation’s jails and prisons.

In August of 2009, after more than two decades of intense advocacy by the ACLU, the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) officials ended a longstanding ban of prisoners with HIV from participating in the state’s work release program. The ACLU, as well as other advocates, long argued that the ban was an arbitrary and discriminatory denial to participation in a program essential for aiding prisoners’ successful reintegration into society. During a federal trial in the mid-1990s, an Alabama warden testified that the segregation of HIV-positive prisoners was an essential security measure since people with HIV were as dangerous as rattlesnakes. Despite the recent positive developments around allowing HIV-positive prisoners to participate in Alabama’s work release program, both Alabama and South Carolina continue the degrading and inhumane practice of segregating HIV-positive prisoners. Prisoners in the HIV units are forced to wear armbands or other indicators of their HIV status, and are denied equal participation in prison jobs, programs and re-entry opportunities that facilitate their successful transition back into society.

In addition to discrimination, criminalization of HIV is also a reality in much of the country. According to the New York Times, at least 32 states have criminal statutes specific to HIV, many of which date to the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s when fear and paranoia of the disease was at its most destructive peak. The Times reports:

In Pennsylvania and Louisiana, people with H.I.V. can be sentenced to as much as 10 years in prison for spitting at or biting another person, even though scientists have long concluded that transmitting the virus through saliva is virtually impossible. In Missouri, people can be sentenced to life in prison if they infect others without their knowledge.

Additionally, the ACLU of Michigan filed an amicus brief in the case of an HIV-positive man who faced bio-terrorism charges after he bit another man during an altercation. Thankfully, a judge recently threw out the bio-terrorism charges against the man (he still faces other charges stemming from the incident), however, the case illustrates the absurd ways in which HIV is still being treated under criminal laws in many states.

There is obviously much work that needs to be done to confront the discrimination and criminalization that those living with HIV/AIDS continue to face. The administration’s commitment to strengthen enforcement of civil rights laws to protect those who have the disease is a promising step, as is the release of the first-ever national HIV/AIDS strategy.

(Originally posted at The Seminal.)