AIDS advocates in the United States and abroad rejoiced on January 4 when President Barack Obama’s administration officially lifted the country’s 22-year-old ban on HIV-positive travelers. But few are happier about this policy change than the Netherlands’ Clemens Ruland, who, traveling with his HIV-negative partner Hugo Bausch, is being recognized as the first positive person to legally enter the United States following the ban’s removal.

While Ruland once made frequent trips to the Big Apple to visit his then-boyfriend, the hassle of hiding his HIV status and medications from airport officials following his 1997 diagnosis grounded him in more ways than one.

After Obama announced on October 30 that the travel ban would be removed, a Dutch AIDS organization called AIDS Fonds held a celebratory contest inviting HIV-positive people in the Netherlands to submit artwork that expresses their joy about the policy shift. Ruland wrote a poem that, coupled with an illustration by Bausch, won the pair a trip to the United States.

In anticipation of his January 7 arrival at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City, the 45-year-old Ruland spoke with POZ about what this historic journey means not only to him, but also to those living with and affected by HIV worldwide.

What’s going through your head as you prepare for your trip to the United States?

Clemens Ruland (left) and his partner Hugo Bausch
I’m mixed between two emotions, because in one way it feels like a victory and in the other way it also reminds me of the fact that I got infected in New York by my ex.

On the other hand, it makes me think back to a Dutch guy, Hans Paul Verhoef, who got arrested at an airport in the United States at the end of the 1980s, and he was one of the first [travelers] who didn’t want to deny his HIV [status to customs officials]. He got arrested and was sent home, and he got a lot of publicity. And to my mind, my trip is also a way to honor this man who had the guts to stand up against this horrible ban. [Verhoef died in 1990 at age 33.]

Why do you think it took so long for the travel ban to be lifted?

Since I’m not an American, it’s a bit hard to find a right reason. But I would say that it has something to do with the power of political conservatives in the United States—especially in the days of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s when this ban was created. As far as I know, it was [former Republican Senator] Jesse Helms who fathered this legislation. In Europe I’m glad we were already, in those days, more liberal toward this point.

How often would you travel to the United States before you were HIV positive?

I met my ex at the end of the Gay Games in 1994 in New York. Our relationship ended in 1997. I would travel to the U.S. every six to eight weeks, but I didn’t know I [was HIV positive] then. I found out after my breakup. After we got separated, I discovered I was infected by him.

Have you been to the United States since your diagnosis?

I’ve been back once. In the beginning I didn’t want to go back because it was too emotional. The city which I loved for all the good times [my ex and I] had when we were together was a little bit ruined by the fact that I didn’t want this relationship to be ended in the first place. And it was even worse when I found out he had infected me, just because of irresponsible behavior.

But I did come back once with my lover I’m with today. We went back to New York five years ago.

What kind of obstacles did you face coming in?

I had to lie about being HIV positive, and I had to try to hide my medication. But I had been an AIDS nurse in the beginning of the 1990s here at one of the major Amsterdam hospitals, and I had learned some tricks how to try and keep medication away from customs and immigration.

Hugo Bausch’s winning illustration
As someone who is looking at the United States from the outside, what message do you think lifting this ban sends to the rest of the world?

I’ve thought about it, and the only way I can put it is it gets rid of some part of your hypocrisy. It’s like your president said lately when he signed the [Ryan White HIV/AIDS Treatment Extension Act]. I saw it on YouTube. He said if we want to be the leading country on stopping this disease, we have to lift this ban. I have to admit a lot of people here [in the Netherlands] weren’t aware that the United States had this exclusion, and people are shocked to hear that the U.S. had a travel ban until [January 4].

While you’re in New York City, what are you looking forward to doing?

To just enjoy that lovely city! We want to see some great museums. One of my dear friends lives in New York, and he supported me all those years after my breakup with my ex and after I found out I’m HIV positive. I’m really looking forward to seeing him after many years and having a good time together. Of course, we also want to shop till we drop.

Read Ruland’s winning poem below.


No more lies
No more pretending
No more hiding
In the crevices of exclusion

to the land
where once lay my destiny
in one viral load

Free I am
Free to travel
To hug, share, love
And once more be united

Alive and proud
I turn to you, America
America, here I come
Come as I am