He was offered a job as a sheriff's deputy -- until they found out he had HIV. Now, he's fighting back in court.
Liam Pierce, 46, who lives with his husband in the rural community of Venice, Louisiana, was diagnosed with HIV in 2003. Like many people diagnosed with HIV in our age of effective treatment and undetectable viral loads, he's never had much trouble with the diagnosis -- until, that is, he took a routine HIV screening test before starting a job with the Iberia Parish Sheriff's office. Even though he already had the job, the offer was rescinded once the test results came in.
Pierce decided to fight back and reached out to the national LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS legal rights group Lambda Legal, which is now suing the sheriff's office on his behalf. "The [sheriff's office] made a job offer to him because he was experienced and well-suited for the job, but then took it back because he is living with HIV," said Lambda attorney Kenneth D. Upton Jr. in a press release announcing the suit. "Hiring should be based on a candidate's qualifications to do the job, not unfounded fears about HIV. This is illegal discrimination, plain and simple," he added.
The suit was filed in late October in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana.
TheBody.com talked to Pierce about the case and why he chose to go public with the story in order to fight HIV stigma and make a stand for HIV rights.
Tim Murphy: Hi, Liam! So, where is Venice, Louisiana, exactly?
Liam Pierce: Louisiana looks like a boot, and we're in the toes -- roughly 85 miles southwest of New Orleans. Currently, I work within the field of public safety, but I want to leave the name of my current employer out of this. My manager knows I have HIV and that hasn't been an issue.
Related: Justice Department Settles With Public School District to Resolve HIV-Related Discrimination Findings
TM: Cool. So, tell us this story in your own words.
LP: So, in 2012, I got a job in the Iberia Parish Sheriff's office. They'd even put me on the schedule on the board, on a particular shift, and the last step in the hiring process was a physical with an HIV test. Everything on the physical came back fine, and the test obviously came back positive. I hadn't mentioned my HIV status to them prior to that. I didn't have to. The application had asked if I had any medical problems that would prevent me from doing my job, and my accurate and honest answer was no.
They sent me a formal letter saying that the offer was withdrawn due to the medical evaluation. It was like a punch in the gut. It hurt because I'm able to do the job of a police officer, to serve the community without any risk, and it's frustrating that people are not educated properly and don't understand about HIV and how it is and isn't transmitted.
In a lot of ways, Louisiana is about 20 years behind the times in HIV education. Someone recently told me that they're afraid to do CPR "because of all the AIDS out there," and I said, "You do realize that's not how you catch it, right?" They actually think they can get it from saliva.
TM: How did you respond to having the job offer rescinded?
LP: I did some research and came across Lambda Legal and contacted them. I explained that I'd been a certified police officer for several years. They did some research and got back to me, and we started the process. First we went through the Louisiana Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which took an extremely long time because the case got lost and someone was retiring.
TM: And finally in 2016, the EEOC said that evidence supported your claim against the Iberia Parish Sheriff. But, as Lambda explained it to me, EEOC can't enforce a judgement, correct?
LP: Right. The sheriff's office refused to take corrective action, including providing HIV education to their officers. I understand completely why a law enforcement agency wants to test their people for HIV. There's always a chance of transmission because of blood and needle sticks [involving an HIV-positive person whose viral load is not undetectable], but how could they not test staff on a yearly basis? Why is it only a first-time test?
TM: So then what happened?
LP: The next step was to see if the Department of Justice would pick up the case, but they said no. So, we filed suit in federal court, and that's where we are now. I also decided to publicly put my name out there with the case. My husband and I were concerned that that would affect my employment or how we were treated in the community. But we decided that being open about this would help people understand that people with HIV are not routinely infectious. It's just a medical condition like diabetes that can be controlled with medication.
TM: Going public also seems like you're trying to buck the stigma surrounding HIV.
LP: Yes. It's easier to understand if you can relate it to someone you know who works every day and is active and healthy. This isn't the 1980s anymore. We have a big HIV problem in Louisiana. As of last year, Baton Rouge led the nation in diagnosed HIV and AIDS cases. And that's partly because of inadequate education.
TM: How has this affected you personally?
LP: I've been monitoring the comments on social media and news outlets. There's a lot of hateful people out there who just don't understand HIV, but again, that goes back to education. It's been a little bit stressful, but we're moving forward, and we're gonna see this thing through. Hopefully, there'll be some changes in the system due to this case.
TM: And what do you and your husband do to unwind?
LP: We're very family oriented. We have a lot of nieces and nephews, and we spoil them rotten! My husband's whole family lives on our street, so we'll cook for the whole family, send out a text, and everyone makes their way over for spaghetti or chicken, stays to watch a movie or just picks up a plate. One of our nieces is five, so we babysit her. We did Thanksgiving at my sister-in-law's, and we're doing Christmas at our house.
We also own a business on the side. I teach firearm safety classes, first aid, and CPR. I'm also a volunteer wildlife and fisheries instructor for hunters.
TM: Thanks for talking to us, Liam, and good luck with the case!
LP: Thank you!
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.