The Spaniard, the diva and the conference in exile
“I defy George Bush to prevent me from returning home, where I have lived my entire adult life, where I was infected with this virus, where my lover, Jeffrey, waits for me.” This was the gauntlet a Berkeley MBA student names Tomas Fabregas threw down in Amsterdam at the opening of the 1992 International Conference on AIDS. Born in Spain but a longtime U.S. resident, Fabregas, 34, announced he was HIV positive in a bold challenge to the U.S. ban on travelers with HIV. Wearing the ACT UP t-shirt du jour (a big, black “No Borders” slogan on the front; “AIDS knows no borders” in 16 languages on the back) Fabregas laid it on the line: “I have 10 CD4 cells and I’m vulnerable, but I’m not weak. I will not stand silent and deny this gross violation of my human rights.” This plan was hatched by Fabregas and 15 ACT UP cohorts to publicize the shadow of deportation in which HIV positive U.S. immigrants live. But it was no mere media ploy: Now Fabregas himself faced detention, and worse, on his return to San Francisco.
Later at a packed press conference, Fabregas was joined by Elizabeth Taylor and a crush of cameras and reporters. As the bulbs blazed, the AIDS diva looked svelte and stunning in a pale pink Chanel suit and matching bag and shoes. In case any Bush administration officials had missed it earlier, Fabregas repeated his dare, waving his U.S. passport and crying out his return flight number and arrival time. Then La Liz held aloft her own British passport, saying “I, too, am an immigrant, George Bush, would you deny me entrance to the United States if I, too, had HIV?” And in a classic star turn, Taylor let it rip: “President Bush isn’t doing anything at all about AIDS. I’m not even sure he knows how to spell AIDS.” From Timbuktu to Tinseltown and in more than 16 languages, the next day’s headlines read: “Bush can’t even spell AIDS.” It was a potshot heard round the world.
The HIV immigration ban had been big news since 1990, when a 130-group boycott and thousands of protestors nearly capsized that year’s conference in San Francisco. Activists, public health pros, physicians and scientists mounted an attack (see AIDS law), and Harvard University tapped for the 1992 confab, vowed to bow out unless people with HIV were allowed to travel unharassed. Divisions in the Bush administration developed, with the anti-ban Public Health Service and the CDC up against the Justice Department. In Congress, Rep. William Dannemeyer and some 67 other members signed a letter in support of the ban, outnumbering the Sen. Edward Kennedy-led opposition. In August 1991, after months of fencing with the feds, Harvard canceled the Boston meeting.
“We had no other choice,” recalls Jonathan Mann, the Harvard professor and global AIDS expert, who took charge of planning the alternative conference in Amsterdam. “We had to prevent the discriminatory U.S. policy from causing demonstrations and boycotts that would paralyze the exchange of scientific information.” The conference news? A handful of non-HIV AIDS cases thrilled and chilled the media, and the dispatches read like a B-grade horror film scenario. The early data from studies of AZT were dark. Even darker were the first-ever stats of HIV worldwide: Research by Mann showed the rates were far higher than anyone had dared to predict. AIDS had entered every country regardless of the border restrictions.
Tomas Fabregas was met with a hero’s welcome in San Francisco—but only after immigration officials flexed their muscles for the cameras: Cops removed Fabregas from the plane before the other passengers could disembark, led him to a small room and questioned him behind closed doors—absurdly avoiding the subject of his HIV status.
His minutes-long detention ended not with deportation but with his release to a cheering terminal and another press conference. But Fabregas’ victory was short-lived. This champion of HIV positive immigrants disbanded his ACT UP committee after Clinton’s 1992 election on the assumption that the president would honor his end-the-ban pledge. Tomas Fabregas died September 22, 1994. The ban stands.