July 22, 2009
In less than 45 days, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services could lift the HIV travel ban. Currently, HIV-positive non-Americans cannot enter the country legally. In December of 1987, then Senator Jesse Helms added a rider to an agricultural bill, making it illegal for a person with HIV/AIDS to step foot on American soil. The senator's thinking was that the world would flood our shores with tired, hungry, immunocompromised masses yearning to take advantage of our American health care system.
What health care system? I mean, if foreigners can find it and learn how to take advantage of it, then let them come and join us. Let them come and take tons of advantage of it -- then let them teach a class at the local Learning Annex showing the rest of us how to do it. I don't know about you, but I believe the health part of my health insurance doesn't refer to me; it refers to the financial health of my insurance company.
Helms was great at stirring the pot with regards to all anti-HIV issues. He set the very anti-HIV tone that is still prevalent in this country to this day, though he eventually regretted it right before he died (way too late for my forgiveness, FYI).
You see, I have firsthand knowledge about this ban and the damage it can do to one's life because years ago, I made the big mistake of falling in love with a citizen of the United Kingdom. In 1988, I had the opportunity to study Shakespeare with the masters at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, England. I arrived in London a few weeks before classes started, to acclimate to the city and to see a little more of Europe before immersing myself in the world of the Bard. My first Sunday in London, I opted to go to the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square, to catch the exhibit of Impressionist paintings from Leningrad (yup, it was still called that then). I remember thinking, "Who cares how I dress? No one knows me here." So I dressed like a typical tourist: T-shirt, jeans, oversized sweatshirt, jeans jacket, and camera over my shoulder with my backpack. I reeked American.
During the Tube ride down, I got this very, very electric feeling. It was nothing I'd ever felt before -- or since actually -- and I remember thinking very clearly that I was going to meet someone very special that day. That person would be "the one." I am not usually one to have these moments, and just took it with a huge grain of salt and went on with my day.
However, while strolling towards the exhibit, there was this man, this incredibly handsome man, with the most beautiful blue eyes I had ever seen. My first thought was, "Damn shame he is with those two aunts of his." Two old ladies flanked him, and I assumed, given their close proximity, he was with them.
I walked past him, staring as I did. He was looking back. I paused. I looked back. He had done the same. And apparently he was alone.
I went towards him, and we began this little dance among the paintings in the Early Germanic room of the Gallery -- I would walk towards him, he would walk away, and then he would walk closer. Eventually, we spoke. OK, clarification here, he officially now gets credit for being the one who spoke first. You will understand why later.
This is the man I spent the next seven years of my life with. His name was David Burnside.
That day, we wandered the museum together. David told me that the exhibit line was way too long and not even to bother. He offered to share with me some of his favorite paintings; I took him up on it. I was introduced to the great benefactor of many an artist: Madame Moitessier. She was David's confidante when all else failed him. She knew all his secrets and fears. Madame Moitessier was always there for him, even when his world seemed to crumble around him.
We spent that evening walking around London and then caught Wim Wenders' movie Wings of Desire. How much better does a first date get? David was going to treat me to dinner at Cafe Pasta, but when he whipped out his credit card, the restaurant informed him that they only took cash. This one would be on me -- money well spent I must add.
David and I instantly became inseparable. We spent the next two nights together, this time actually sleeping together -- and only that. We both wanted to hold off what we knew would be inevitable. It was Wednesday morning when we finally sealed the deal.
Later that Wednesday, I asked him to join me in Paris. I was flying to Paris that Wednesday evening based on plans I had made before I met him. I thought he knew the city and spoke French, so why not? David instantly agreed to join me on Friday so that we might spend the weekend together in the City of Lights.
We reconnected that Friday night under the Arc de Triomphe; he ran towards me the second he caught sight of me. We were both 25 and neither of us had even remotely experienced what was about to happen, though we were both open to it. All of those silly lyrics in all of the love songs that one hears on the radio finally made sense. I knew then why people sang songs like that.
That evening, while lying in bed next to each other, David started asking me questions. Did I know about Edmund White, and that when he tested positive, his boyfriend (who tested negative) left him? How would I respond to something like that? I remember thinking for a bit, and then replying that it was a bigger statement on their relationship, for if you really, truly loved someone, why would it matter what his or her status was? As long as you play safe, all should be fine, right?
David then relayed his news.
I was speechless for a bit. I eventually asked about his health, how he was doing. I asked about our sex life -- we were being safe, right? He said yes.
I told him it was too late for me to run, for I had already fallen in love with him and had no desire to be anywhere else ever again.
Love is truly blind, and doesn't know about passports, or legal ramifications, or borders of any kind. Love just knows love, that's why it's so perfect. Senator Helms was about to enter my life in a big way, but just like every other problem we encountered during our time together, we found a way around it.
You see, David and I were the soul mates that one reads about. We completed each other's sentences, thought what the other was thinking, and became one. We had that love one would kill for. I knew going in that it was not going to be forever, but I also knew that perfection like this didn't come along every day and I was not going to let go until I absolutely had to.
Together, we fought the legal obstacles, the distance, and yes, the virus. We found that if he got an employment-based visa, there was no medical exam, so we jumped at the chance and David became legal of sorts.
We were also lucky because no one thought that a tall, handsome, blond man with a cool British accent could possibly be illegal. But David was. For seven years we lived in fear of getting caught, of deportation, of him not being allowed back in the country after we visited his family in the UK. Our lives continued thus until his death from AIDS in 1995. He died the month before the new protease inhibitors became available experimentally. I truly think what did him in was a lack of will go to on. After he left the job he loved and was on disability, he felt as if he had no reason to keep going, that why should he challenge the inevitable? With health problem after health problem after health problem, I can understand what he was going through. At some point at that period in the history of this dreaded disease, of his own struggles, he probably just said enough. After his death, I was scared to file the life insurance, for I assumed, wrongly, that they would have figured it out by then and nullify the policy. Thankfully, I was wrong.
Now, in a matter of weeks, David would have been legal. Yes, we would not have been legally married, but at least one part of the fear factor would have been lifted, and we could have traveled about with ease.
When I first heard about this possibility, I wanted to run to his side and say, "Look, they are finally lifting the ban," but then I remembered he was gone.
I do that now and then. I want to run and tell him something, in spite of the fact that he has been gone 14 years , and am abruptly reminded that he is no longer by my side. I long to hear what he would have said to all this nonsense, for he had an opinion about everything, which was part of the reason I fell for him.
This lifting of the ban is greater than it initially seems. Obviously, people like David would have an easier time of it here, but it also removes the U.S. from a rather short and nasty list.
I want to point out that it was the hard work of the good people of Immigration Equality (ImmigrationEquality.org) that was the driving force behind this effort. As of October 2008, the list of countries that do not allow entry to people living with HIV/AIDS included Brunei, Egypt, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Singapore, South Korea, Sudan, Tunisia, Turks and Caicos Islands, UAE, and Yemen. I would hardly call those countries "progressive" by any stretch of the imagination.
I am humiliated that it took this long for my country to attempt to correct that wrong, and I remain confused as to why the U.S. can contribute millions of dollars a year to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, but can do so very little for people living with HIV/AIDS within its own borders. Even as recently as a few months ago, California threatened to cancel its AIDS Drug Assistance Program because the state could not balance its budget.
I also get angry when I hear that 30 percent of the doctors on the west side of Los Angeles -- a supposedly liberal bastion of freedom -- still discriminate against people with HIV with respect to non-HIV-related medical situations, such as basic dental and vision care.
Twenty-one years ago, on Friday, July 10, David entered my heart and has not left since. I wish he were here to celebrate with. But like many of the big moments I have experienced since he left me, I will have to go it alone.
To contact Thomas, click here.