Ken was on his way from Toronto last Wednesday to spend Gay Pride week with a friend on the Upper East Side. “We were going to go to a couple of parties, hang out in a nightclub he is working in, go to the pier and dance,” says Ken. But instead of celebrating, Ken, who is Canadian, ended up being barred from the U.S. by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
First, an INS agent picked Ken— and only Ken— out of the line of passengers waiting at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport and took him into a private office. Then, with Ken’s permission, he searched Ken’s luggage until he found HIV medication. “He picked up every bottle and read each one and asked what each is for,” says Ken. “I said it was for my HIV cocktail. He kept asking me for each one even though I said it’s all for my HIV cocktail.” Eventually the agent told Ken that he couldn’t enter the U.S. because he is HIV-positive.
For Ken, the experience was demoralizing: “I feel like shit, discriminated against.” But, disturbing and unfair as the agent’s behavior was, it was also, shockingly, legal. Under a law that has been criticized by a phalanx of public health experts, the U.S. is allowed to bar noncitizens with HIV from entering the country. INS agents can even require a person they suspect of being HIV-positive to take an HIV test.
Most often, HIV-positive travelers make it across international borders without incident. Paul Morse, co-owner of the gay travel agency that made the arrangements for Ken’s trip, says he has booked thousands of trips into the U.S.— many of them for people with HIV— and has never before heard of anyone being denied entry for being HIV-positive. And the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association’s guide, Out & About, writes that, while some countries excluded HIV-positive travelers in the early 1980s, such screening “no longer appears to be a problem.” Ken himself says he has made the trip at least 50 times before without being questioned about his HIV status.
Ken, who is Asian and tattooed, thinks his appearance may have had to do with his being stopped. Even though he wore a long-sleeved, buttoned-up shirt to cover his tattoos— and even though Ken says others in line “looked a bit more peculiar than me”— the agent seems to have fingered him as gay from a distance.
When asked about Ken’s story, Russ Bergeron, an INS spokesperson, said that appearance can be a factor in deciding how to question people entering the country. But he insists that consideration “is in no way linked to issues of health or sexual preference.” So, if Ken was targeted because of how he looked, it was just standard for the INS, in keeping with a widely recognized practice of eyeballing that bears a striking parallel to cops’ profiling of young black men.
But in his case, Ken thinks, the authorities were keeping their eyes out for gay people. “They’re probably on some kind of special crackdown because of Gay Pride week,” speculates Ken. Bergeron insists that isn’t so, however, saying, “There have been no special field operating instructions issued to our points of entry calling for increased scrutiny as a result of Gay Pride week.”
And, though he admits there is no guarantee they would be granted them, Bergeron also points out that HIV-positive travelers attending Gay Pride can apply for waivers to the ban. That’s in keeping with the government’s policy of issuing waivers for travelers seeking medical treatment or attending special events. Immigrants can also get around the HIV test, which is part of the application for residence, if they have sponsorship from relatives who live here. (This provision doesn’t offer much solace to gay people, who are unable to legally marry their partners and, more often than straights, estranged from their families.)
Some other countries, including Canada, also have the legal right to deny entry to travelers with HIV when they discover them. But most European nations have no special travel restrictions for people with HIV. And many others, including Thailand, Costa Rica, and South Africa, have recently lifted bans on HIV-positive travelers.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., restrictions on HIV-positive foreigners— while not often put to use— are becoming more entrenched. This is despite the efforts of the World Health Organization, the American Public Health Association, and even the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, all of which have weighed in against excluding people with HIV. (They point out that, unlike other diseases for which people may be barred from the U.S., AIDS could not be transmitted casually.) But ban supporters have argued successfully that people with HIV may endanger American citizens and that their illnesses could pose a burden to the health care system.
AIDS activists took the issue on full force when it first surfaced. In 1990, advocates and scientists at the international AIDS conference in San Francisco took to the streets to protest the exclusion of HIV-
positive visitors. The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission launched a campaign to reverse then president Bush’s position on the issue. And waves of angry letters and faxes poured in to legislators whenever well-connected people were banned from the country because of HIV.
Nevertheless, in 1993, President Clinton signed a law barring HIV-infected aliens from entering the country. And over the years, outrage has shifted to other issues. As IGLHRC’s Jaime Balboa explains, “Now activists are prioritizing access to medications as their focus.” Also, says Balboa, “There are ways for people who want to travel to keep from being discovered. One can be a closeted HIV person for matters of safety.”
Out & About suggests one such closeting technique: telling customs agents that HIV medications are for kidney cancer and heart disease. Why didn’t Ken do that? “I didn’t want to lie,” says Ken, who adds, “It just never occurred to me this could really happen.”