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Lambda AIDS Project Review

Summer, 1995

As is the case with the close of every year, there is both good and bad news to report. The gratification we get from the fruits of our work is tempered by the sobering reality of the virulent bias against the gay community and those with HIV which makes this work so necessary.

The Lambda AIDS Project had a busy and productive fall filing new cases, beginning investigation on a variety of future cases and providing legal resources and assistance to community attorneys, organizations and advocates. Together these activities have covered a wide spectrum of issues raised by the HIV epidemic.

A quick review of several of the more recent issues we have dealt with demonstrates the range and seriousness of the matters we address on behalf of our community with HIV:

  • Denial of employment rights to HIV-positive health care workers.
    For example, we represent a surgeon in a case where the hospital required notification of his HIV-positive status, and we also are assisting a private attorney who represents a health care worker who was fired because he did not follow orders to cover a tattoo on his arm that said "HIV-positive." Ironically, the job restrictions in both cases were based on alleged "concern for patient safety."

  • Denied or restricted access to public accommodations and services, from public restrooms to insurance.

  • Involuntary testing and breaches of confidentiality in the criminal justice system, with one detained man sued by an arresting officer because of the latter's fear of exposure to the detainee's HIV.

  • After two gay men were murdered in Mississippi, Lambda intervened to demonstrate the irrelevance of post-mortem HIV tests to the case.

The AIDS-related discrimination cases on the docket testify to the depths to which discrimination and bias can sink, and the critical importance of the AIDS Project's vitality and commitment to fighting back. These cases confirm the importance of expanding our litigation docket as an AIDS Project priority. However, battling AIDS-related discrimination in the courts is only part of the struggle to achieve civic equality for people with HIV/AIDS. The AIDS Project also works with policy-makers and analysts to address the needs of populations often left behind in the struggle for equal access to critical treatments and services. We continue to work, for example, with a committee of correctional, medical and policy experts on the development of model guidelines for the implementation of clinical drug trials in correctional facilities.

Historically, corrections administrators have relied on the history of abuse and exploitation of prisoners in the area of medical experimentation as a basis to pre-empt inmates' autonomy in making decisions about treatment and to preclude their access to experimental therapies which could improve or prolong their lives. We expect that the guidelines will address this standoff and provide a model for correctional administrators and advocates across the country.

In addition, Lambda has played a major role in the development of legislation addressing the shortcomings of traditional legal mechanisms available to parents living with HIV who wish to plan for the future custody of their children. This legislation, generally known as "standby guardianship," allows parents living with HIV to identify in advance those most appropriate to assume care of their children in the event that these parents can no longer do so themselves. We have taken the lead in the development of a standby guardianship law in Pennsylvania, worked with a committee formed to draft a similar law in New Jersey, and provided resources and information to a number of advocates wishing to initiate similar legislation in other parts of the country.

One challenge in these legislative endeavors is beating back the inclination of many legislators and judges to use a different standard in custody cases for persons with HIV through judicial review of the "qualifications" of parent-designated guardians never imposed on traditional couples in routine custody proceedings. Another is to ensure that the custody-planning mechanism created through this legislation is truly accessible to those most in need of it, through elimination of costly fees and cumbersome procedures that can make it unavailable for the substantial number of clients without financial or legal resources. As the next year of work begins, we also acknowledge the latest reminders of the discrimination and threats to essential services which persons living with HIV will continue to confront daily.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, which has offered a lifeline to many victims of HIV-related discrimination previously without remedies, has come under attack in Congress as a supposed example of Washington bureaucracy intruding into the lives of Americans. Federal legislation changing the very nature and definition of entitlement programs, setting spending limits for programs such as SSI and housing assistance -- literally a matter of life and death to many people with AIDS -- is on the table. So, too, is a measure to deny most forms of assistance to people who are not citizens, including Medicaid and community and migrant health centers. These latest attacks on the most vulnerable members of our community underscore the need to redouble our efforts. As proud as we are of our past accomplishments, we must continue to build on them.

Lambda's AIDS Project is a unique voice in the AIDS and health care advocacy communities. Our ongoing work combatting discrimination and the denial of basic services for people with HIV/AIDS has an enduring urgency. Lambda continues to lead the fight -- against discrimination, and the complacency which nurtures it.

Catherine Hanssens is the AIDS Project Director at Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national organization committed to achieving the full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS through impact litigation, education, and public policy work.

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This article was provided by Lambda Legal. Visit Lambda Legal's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.