The massage profession is regarded very differently in Albuquerque, N.M., than it is in Los Angeles. If you tell a stranger in Albuquerque that you make a living as a massage therapist, you will undoubtedly get a respectful response.
Try that same scenario in Los Angeles (L.A.) and there's a good chance that the person will give you a leering, hubba-hubba look.
In Los Angeles, free periodicals like the L.A. Weekly are filled with page after page of "sensuous massage" ads from women with names like FiFi or Lola. Open a free periodical in Albuquerque or flip through the massage listings of any New Mexico yellow pages, and you will be hard-pressed to find even one ad of questionable legitimacy.
"Sleazy until proven otherwise" is the prevalent attitude toward massage therapists in Los Angeles. I could deal with that if that was the only thing I had to face, but thanks to the L.A. Police Commission that definitely has not been the case!
After completing a 750-hour massage therapy program and graduating from massage school in January 2000, I returned to my native California with plans of starting my own massage business.
Working primarily with other HIV-positive people was, and still is, my intention. I have first-hand knowledge of the importance of touch, and know how damaging the lack of it can be. Giving and receiving non-sexual, nurturing touch is what massage therapy is all about, and I was eager to bring my skills to the HIV community.
On March 22, 2000, I picked up a massage license packet from the Tax and Permit Division of the L.A. City Clerk's Office in Van Nuys. As if it wasn't offensive enough to discover the entity in charge of licensing was none other than the L.A. Police Commission, I was shocked to read that one of the licensing requirements was a negative "HTLV III (AIDS) test!"
Throughout the packet, I found the stipulation that the massage license applicant be "free of communicable disease." Of course, that should have read "free of airborne communicable disease," but we're not dealing with the sharpest knives in the drawer here.
Fortunately, I was familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and I contacted the HIV/AIDS Legal Services Alliance (HALSA) for advice. Thanks to the expert guidance and assistance of my lawyer, Brad Sears, a grievance was filed with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), in San Francisco.
OCR is a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services, a.k.a. "the Feds." Equal Opportunity Specialist Brock Evans was the attorney assigned to the case after it was received on July 12, 2000.
My case was not the first attempt to end HIV discrimination against massage therapists in Los Angeles. Two previous attempts to end the HIV discrimination had been made -- once by the Americans Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the early '90s, and once by HALSA, in 1997. In each instance, "The Fuzz" slithered back to its old, slimy ways.
On Nov. 8, OCR completed its investigation of the grievance, and issued a report of its findings to Brad Sears, and L.A. City Attorney James K. Hahn. OCR found the City of Los Angeles, through its Police Commission, in violation of several codes from Title II of the ADA. The City was given the opportunity to submit a plan to achieve compliance with the ADA within 30 days of the report. If OCR does not receive the plan by the deadline, it will issue a formal noncompliance letter of findings. If there is no voluntary resolution of the matter after that, the whole matter will be referred to the Department of Justice.
The plan must include a commitment that the city will take all of the following specific actions; and provide OCR with documentation that certain actions have been completed, including the following:
Although the grievance interviews with my lawyer were long and draining, knowing that we were doing something to fight back was very empowering.
My massage license actually did arrive last November. I wish that could be the happy conclusion to this story. But as of this writing, other actions have yet to be completed by the deadline imposed by the OCR.
We shall see what happens.
The investigation involving the licensing of HIV-positive massage therapists in the city of Los Angeles is still under way. Watch Positive Living for further developments.