Richard: I got my HIV test results over the phone while I was at work one day. I’m an office assistant at a law firm and have disclosed to only one person there, someone I’m close to. But I’m tired of making excuses for doctor’s appointments or for why I’m feeling sick. I’m considering telling my director, but don’t know if
I should. Where do you work, and does anybody there know you’re positive?
Robert: I’m the managing and artistic director of the Shreveport Little Theater in Shreveport, Louisiana. Everyone—not only at work but also in town—knows I’m positive and have AIDS. That’s because I became an activist around 1990. But it wasn’t always so easy for me to disclose in the workplace.
Richard: I totally understand. When I heard my results, I felt numb and couldn’t really show emotion. I had to go on with my day like nothing was wrong. What were your worries about disclosing back when you were diagnosed?
Robert: I worked in the food and beverage industry then, so I feared I’d lose my job. In the mid-’80s, it wasn’t clear to the general public how the virus was transmitted. I had a friend who worked as a cook in a restaurant who was fired for having HIV. I worked for the owner of a restaurant and nightclub for three years while hiding my doctor’s appointments and my meds. But then I found out that his brother had AIDS, so I disclosed to him, and he was fine.
Richard: Sometimes it’s hard to hide the fact that I’m positive. I do a little bit of
everything at work. I file stuff at the courthouse; I do all of the mail; and I’m constantly running around, so I’m very visible. I enjoy my job because I’m always in and out of the office, meeting new people. But I got pneumonia when I was first diagnosed, and my bosses freaked out when I had to take a month off. I’m worried that if I get sick again, they might say I’m slacking off and fire me.
Robert: It is illegal to discriminate based on disability. But keep in mind that unless an employment dispute directly conflicts with the federal ADA [Americans With Disabilities Act] laws, employment issues are governed locally within the employee’s state. Before deciding about disclosure, check the ADA site [www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada] to learn your rights. It’s easy for an employer to terminate someone without justification; the burden is on the employee to prove that the termination was HIV related or violates ADA statutes. It’s always best to seek legal advice before disclosing. Many states have a legal organization that looks at these matters. [Lambda Legal is a national civil rights organization for LGBT and HIV positive individuals. Visit www.lambdalegal.org for information about your state.]
Richard: Since I work for a law firm, I would hope they’d have the wisdom not to think that they could get HIV just from being around me. There are other people in my office who have illnesses—there’s a woman who has cancer, and somebody else has congestive heart failure. Sometimes I wonder why they tell people about their diseases. I think I would be upset if people added me to that list and were like, “Oh, wait a minute, now we have somebody who has AIDS.”
Robert: It’s human nature to label people. But you can’t control what people think. Life is short, and, if at all possible, you should be honest about who you are. I would certainly think it through—don’t do anything drastic. But personally, I wouldn’t want to go through life with the stress of keeping that secret. I think stress is really bad on the immune system. If it’s possible, find a job where you can be open and honest about your status.
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