Recently, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago opened an exhibit entitled "AIDS: The War Within." It highlights many issues surrounding HIV and AIDS, from the epidemiology of the virus to modes of transmission, from prevention strategies to new treatments. The exhibit is an excellent educational tool. Hopefully, it will enlighten many people, not only about the real facts of HIV disease, but also about the irrational fear of HIV transmission. This fear is a common undercurrent in Lambda's AIDS Project work in our Midwest Regional Office.
Lambda recently intervened in a suit in Evansville, Indiana in conjunction with the Indiana HIV Advocacy Program and the Indiana HIV/AIDS Legal Project. The case involves a bartender who was fired from a restaurant once it was discovered that he had HIV. Our client was terminated despite the fact that the Centers for Disease Control, the Surgeon General and even the National Restaurant Association consistently have stated that there is absolutely no danger of transmitting the virus through the handling of food and drink. Nevertheless, the restaurant owner contended that the bartender's HIV status posed a direct threat to customers and to his fellow employees. This argument is born of the hysteria surrounding HIV and AIDS. Fortunately, the Americans with Disabilities Act does not accept such justifications. We will continue our advocacy in this area to ensure that people with HIV retain the fundamental right to work.
Irrational fear regarding HIV transmission is also prevalent in the health care setting. Discrimination by health care professionals is particularly problematic since people with HIV will inevitably require medical services. Recently, a Chicago man encountered discrimination while in Minnesota when he experienced AIDS-related problems with his vision. Although he posed no risk to the medical staff, an emergency room physician was engulfed in fear upon learning of his HIV status. In addition to making inappropriate comments concerning the patient's serostatus, the doctor failed to examine him or even ask him about his symptoms, but instead made matters worse by prescribing medicine that irritated his eyes. After Lambda wrote a letter objecting to this behavior and demanding that the conduct of the physician be investigated, the patient negotiated a favorable monetary settlement with the hospital and a commitment to conduct HIV-related educational programs. This dispute is a sobering reminder
that discrimination based upon irrational fear frequently includes those who are supposedly educated about the nature of HIV transmission.
Probably the most alarming area in which this fear-based discrimination is evident is in the criminal context. Lambda filed an amicus brief with the Seventh Circuit in a case in which an Illinois inmate's HIV status was inappropriately disclosed. We argued that the prison officials' fears of transmission were unfounded and that the use of universal precautions was preferred over a mandatory disclosure policy as a means of infection control. Maintaining the confidentiality of HIV test results is particularly crucial in the correctional environment where the likelihood of harassment and violence against HIV-positive individuals is magnified.
These cases are not isolated incidents, but are indicative of the prevalent discrimination born of irrational fear still facing people with HIV disease. As we are well into the second decade of living with HIV in the United States, it is difficult to comprehend how these unfounded fears remain. While a museum exhibit is a helpful means of education, it is evident that these messages are not being heard or believed by all. Fortunately, we now have viable legal tools like the Americans with Disabilities Act to redress this discrimination. Apparently, only when there is legal accountability for discriminatory actions against people with HIV will we truly be able to effect change.
Barry Taylor is the AIDS Project Staff Attorney in the Midwest Regional Office of 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.