A Brit with HIV reports from the other side of the ban
Holidays in America always get off to a bad start. Like thousands of other people with HIV around the world, my lover and I are forced to endure the possibility that we'll be turned away by U.S. immigration officers. We face a stark choice: If I declare I have HIV, I'm likely to be put back on the plane; if I lie, I become an illegal alien (see AIDS Law).
The first time, in 1995, was the worst. In fact, flying into Miami International Airport ranks as one of the most awful experiences of my life. I remember approaching the immigration counter with trepidation: I'd rehearsed my lines in case I was asked about all the prescription drugs scattered among the clothes in my suitcase--enough to stock a drugstore for a week! As a rule I'm very law abiding; I've never even had a speeding ticket. So it felt strange, to say the least, as I ticked off the wrong box beneath the "communicable diseases" question on the entry card and bluffed my way through the uniformed officer's questions. But the stakes were high: After six months of chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, I thought this holiday to Key West might be the final one. The last thing I wanted was what had happened to a friend the year before: To be forced onto the next flight to Heathrow, returning to the gray gloom that passes for springtime in England.
My HIV negative partner went through first. I waited behind the line painted on the floor, in a cold sweat, pulse racing. Then it was my turn. I handed over my passport and visa waiver form--desperately trying to project an aura of rosy-cheeked, well-fed health! A few routine questions later, I sailed through. Other passengers must have wondered why I looked so ecstatic. In the end, my lover and I had the trip of a lifetime. Unfortunately for both my bank balance and my lawfulness, I fell in love with America and kept returning.
The anxiety of entering lessens with each visit, but once the initial euphoria passes, I always feel angry. I got mad as I drove with the top down through the Florida Keys, Latin jazz on the radio, palm trees and clear blue water all around. I got mad in a cab en route from JFK as I first laid eyes on Manhattan, straining to catch a glimpe of Broadway and all the other landmarks I'd only seen in movies. My anger was--and still is--aimed at those faceless authorities who feel they're right to keep people with HIV out of your country. The logic of this escapes me.
Am I barred because they fear I will spread HIV to Americans? If so, they should know the demographics suggest otherwise: The largest U.S. cities each have more HIV infections than all of Britain. Obviously they assume I intend to have unsafe sex. But given the prevalence of different HIV strains--particularly drug-resistant ones--fucking without a condom with a man who lives in New York City or Key West is riskier for me than for him. Am I barred because of the drain I might be on the American health care system? Coming from a country whose comprehensive and free medical services are the envy of the world, I can think of better reasons to visit the United States than to take advantage of its creaking, overcrowded health care bureaucracy.
As if all this weren't enough, the current policy is unworkable. The U.S. Justice Department admitted as long ago as 1993 that "lots of people with HIV who do not declare a communicable disease enter the United States all the time." In short, the ban cannot be properly policed.
The truth is, there's no good reason why, as a Brit with HIV, I'm barred from entering the United States. I'd like to believe it's due to the prejudice of right-wing fundamentalist bigots, but after all, the policy was enacted with bipartisan support in Congress and signed by President Clinton, a Democrat. Americans should hang their heads in shame that their country's immigration policies for people with HIV are as punishing as those in Russia, Iraq and Cuba--counties whose human-rights recrds they so loudly disparage.
This is unfortunate because travel is very important to those of us with HIV. It may be that we're cramming decades of destinations into a handful of holidays, or filling up free time after giving up work, or storing up as many exciting memories as possible with a partner.
For many Europeans, America figures high on the list of places not to be missed, whether it's the geat metropolises of New York City or San Francisco, or the coastal meccas of Provincetown or Key West. All the United States needs is a set of civilized immigration laws. Many of us in Europe are bemused at how a nation so proud of its role as "Leader of the Free World" remains so wanting when it comes to opening its own doors. Fortunately, HIV positive Americans don't face the same inhumane hurdles on visits to most European countries. Why not come and see?