Sadly, HIV Discrimination Still Happens. Here’s What to Do if You Experience It

The news out of North Carolina in October was upsetting—yet sadly unsurprising, even in 2021.

In a settlement deal, the U.S. government said that a Durham nail salon, Diva Nails, had to pay an unnamed customer $7,500 in damages for denying him future service after learning that he had HIV. The settlement also required the salon to create and post at its entrance a nondiscrimination policy addressing HIV and other disabilities, and to give all its employees HIV education and nondiscrimination training, including the fact that HIV transmission in a salon setting is virtually impossible.

According to local newspaper The News & Observer, the client was leaving the salon after paying for his pedicure when another client, who knew him from church, loudly asked if the salon staff “knew about his condition.” Then, according to the settlement, the salon owner followed him outside, said he knew that the client “had AIDS,” and asked him not to come back to the salon. (For his part, the owner denies barring the client future service, but admits he asked the client’s HIV status, and that the client bring a doctor’s note upon his next visit.)

The client filed a complaint with the Department of Justice, which led to an investigation and ended with a settlement, rather than a civil action. (The U.S. attorney in the case told TheBody it would pass along our request to speak to the unnamed client and his private lawyer. As of this writing, TheBody had not heard from them.)

Decades on, HIV Discrimination Cases Persist

It’s good news that the client, who reportedly has no car and went to Diva Nails because it was the only salon within walking distance, took legal action, despite feeling “embarrassed and anxious” from the incident, according to the settlement. But it’s also deeply concerning that the incident took place at all, nearly 40 years after confirmation that HIV cannot be casually transmitted and more than a decade after confirmation that people who consistently take their HIV meds have no risk of transmitting HIV even sexually.

Sadly, despite those discoveries, such incidents still occur with more frequency than they should. “I’ve been doing this work for 14 years,” says openly HIV-positive attorney Scott Schoettes, the former longtime HIV Project director for Lambda Legal, which advocates on behalf of LGBTQ and HIV-positive people. “There’s still a lot of ignorance and misperception out there, and I haven’t really sensed that there’s been any significant drop” in discrimination cases against people with HIV.

One recent case that Lambda took on was on behalf of Nikko Briteramos, an HIV-positive man who was denied service from a Los Angeles barbershop in 2017 after one of the barbers recognized him from his highly publicized arrest on HIV criminalization charges from years before when he was only 19 years old. The barbershop was ordered to pay $75,000 in damages to Briteramos, who then worked with Lambda and the Black AIDS Institute on “Cut the Stigma,” an HIV anti-discrimination campaign.

Over several Facebook group pages for people living with HIV (PLWH), TheBody asked folks to recount incidents of perceived discrimination—and was inundated with replies.

In upstate New York, D., who asked to remain anonymous, wrote us about being “discriminated against by a clinic that performs laser hair removal” about a decade ago, after she volunteered her HIV status there. “I was told that I couldn’t do the procedure because my DNA could get on the laser and possibly infect others.” (To state the obvious, this is false.) “I knew better, brushed it off, and never went back. I still would like to get hair removal, but I’m not comfortable with trying again and having to disclose my status. I felt shamed, embarrassed, angry, and disgusted.”

But D. is not alone in not taking legal action against the clinic. Many PLWH don’t know they are protected against discrimination by the federal Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and possibly state and local anti-discrimination laws as well. Even if they do know, they sometimes choose not to pursue action in order to avoid spending the time and mental energy. (I once dropped a complaint against a possible incident of HIV discrimination at a dentist simply because, after a point, I didn’t want to be further bothered with it.)

Such alleged incidents happen outside the U.S., too, of course. In Cornwall, England, Veritee Reed-Hall said that she was denied services from a tattoo parlor after she disclosed her HIV status. Her insistence to the parlor staff that tattooing did not pose an HIV transmission risk fell on deaf ears, she said. The parlor dared her to file a claim in civil court, but she did not due to the expense, she said. She added that she did not hear back from various HIV organizations she reached out to about the incident.

“I felt shame” from the refusal, she wrote, “like I was regarded as not as good as other people—even dirty. It left me with a fear of asking for a service and being refused. I’ve never again asked for a tattoo or a massage. And I’ve only had hair removal at places they don’t give me a form to fill in that asks if I have HIV.”

And in Indonesia, Aan Rianto wrote that only a few months ago, a hospital refused him surgery because of his HIV status, saying that it did not have the proper PPE (personal protection equipment, such as face masks and gowns) to perform surgery on people with HIV. When he complained to the government, he said, they upheld the hospital’s position on PPE—despite the fact that Indonesia has many laws protecting against HIV discrimination. Rianto said that he ultimately had the surgery done at another hospital.

What to Do if You Experience Discrimination

Schoettes said he could not comment on other countries—but that in the U.S., PLWH who feel they are being discriminated against should—at the moment, if possible—“call them out on what they’re doing.” Folks can cite the ADA, as well as the possibility that there may be state and local laws barring HIV discrimination.

“See what their reaction is and if you can get them to put the refusal in writing,” says Schoettes. “Sometimes they’re so arrogant that they think the law protects them.”

Then, as soon as possible after the incident, write, type, or record as detailed an account as possible, urges Schoettes—especially with a time stamp. In most states, he says, it’s legal for one party to record a call without the other party knowing—so if you can, get the offending party to restate the discriminatory language on a taped call. (Having installed an app like TapeACall on your phone, you might call back later and say something like, “Why did you refuse me service because I’m HIV positive?” or “I’m very hurt that you refused me service because I’m HIV positive.”)

But sometimes, says Schoettes, the discrimination may be less explicit. Say, for example, everything is going fine until you reveal your HIV status, verbally or on a form, and then the health or service provider tells you they can’t serve you for some vague or unstated reason.

Whether explicit or implicit, says Schoettes, it’s best to reach out immediately after writing up your account to the help desk of a place like Lambda Legal, the HIV Law Project, or your local ACLU affiliate. Their experts will hear out your incident and help you determine if you have an actionable case. They can also help you determine whether you should report your incident to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) if it involves your current or potential workplace.

But, notes Schoettes, often it’s easier to get a defendant in a case to make no- or low-cost changes—such as implementing anti-discrimination training or policy—than it is to get them to pay a sum of damages, especially if they are uninsured for lawsuits. Even if they likely are insured,…

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