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Fighting HIV Bias at U.S. Agency
by Bob Roehr
2003-10-01

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An HIV-positive gay man is suing the U.S. Department of State to become a diplomat. The lawsuit seeks to knock down the only place in the U.S., besides military service, that still refuses to hire someone who is infected with the virus.

Lambda Legal, with co-counsel from the prestigious firm of Arnold & Porter, filed the suit on his behalf in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 3. It is Taylor v. Powell.

In this exclusive interview the plaintiff, for the first time, sits down to talk about the road that led him to the courthouse.

'I've always wanted to be a foreign service officer,' says Lorenzo Taylor, 47, a native of Birmingham, Ala. He spent a year in Grenoble, France as a high school exchange student and was drawn to Washington to attend the renowned School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

Upon graduation, his mastery of French and Spanish led the State Department to hire Taylor as an escort/interpreter, an independent contractor with the agency. He traveled the country, often for weeks on end, translating and explaining America to foreign community leaders who were visiting on a fellowship program. He often worked with political, social, and academic leaders from Africa.

And then Taylor learned he was carrying the virus. 'I had a partner at the time who developed HIV in December 1984,' soon after the epidemic acquired that name. Taylor had the same physician and when the FDA approved the first antibody test for HIV in early 1985, it showed that he too was infected.

Those were the darkest days of the epidemic in the U.S., when AIDS was considered a death sentence. There were no treatments— AZT, the first drug, would not be approved for two more years, and protease inhibitors were a decade away—Taylor's lover deteriorated rapidly and died in September.

After 10 years of frequent travel as an escort/interpreter, Taylor was ready for a change. His desire to be a foreign service officer had cooled a bit. 'As a person living with HIV, the idea of living abroad in the late 1980s was probably not a wise thing to do,' he says. Plus, one of his best friends had been kicked out of the diplomatic corps for being gay, and would wage a multi-year legal fight to regain his job.

Taylor chose to go to the University of Minnesota to earn a masters degree in public health. His new career path focused on HIV. He worked on prevention for CDC; went to a local program in Denver; and for the last five years has been back in Washington at the Department of Health and Human Services as a project officer administering Ryan White CARE Act Title I programs on the West Coast.

Love, and a policy change, got him to thinking again about a career in the State Department. The agency policy is that foreign service officers must be available for worldwide service, and HIV is an automatic exclusion to being hired. U.S. diplomats are tested for HIV as a part of regular medical care and, like the military, an exception is made for those already employed who seroconvert. They can remain on the job as long as they are healthy.

In August 2001 the Department dropped similar HIV exclusions for hiring local employees at embassies around the world. It said the policy would 'bring our overseas hiring and workplace practices in line with global U.S. efforts to fight the AIDS pandemic. With this new policy, the U.S. sets an example consistent with its message of non-discrimination to host countries and private industry, at the same time giving priority to education and prevention efforts in promoting and maintaining employee health.'

Taylor had been dating a foreign service officer for more than a year and they knew that the fellow eventually would again be posted overseas. The ban on gays openly serving as diplomats had been lifted during the Clinton administration, and while not officially recognizing gay couples, the Department does try to arrange assignments together where possible.

He had passed several of the arduous hurdles that one must take to join the Foreign Service—the written exam that winnows down candidates and the oral interview—when, in December 2001, he hit the wall of the medical exam.

Taylor says the Department had changed the policy on local employees because they were having trouble finding qualified people in Africa who were not HIV-positive. 'We thought, maybe they would look more closely at the [remaining] policy. We thought that they would look at my full medical history and have a different attitude toward it.' That would prove not to be the case.

'I was shocked,' when the medical officer said that HIV was an automatic exclusion and they would not reconsider. He says, 'That was probably the worst day because it was realizing that this was going to be a struggle.'

Taylor began the administrative appeal process and later filed a discrimination complaint through the Equal Employment Opportunity office. He also began talking with Lambda Legal. When the EEO report came out in June of 2003 and 'didn't really say much of anything,' they decided to go to court.

'Not everybody with HIV can do this job,' he readily admits, 'but there are people with HIV who can live and work and travel abroad, in part because of the advances and the availability of medication that has made it a chronic, manageable illness' for many people.

Taylor believes each person should be evaluated on the basis of his or her individual medical history. While he tested positive for HIV in 1985, he has never been symptomatic and his viral load remains undetectable on a protease-sparing regimen. 'I'm not sure that any of the meds are really the thing that's keeping my alive,' he says with a laugh.

The hiring policy is a relic from the darkest days of AIDS. It is based on the premise that 'adequate HIV medical care is not universally available worldwide.' But it is undercut by the Department's retention of those employees who seroconvert while in the Foreign Service, and by the Peace Corp that has no such exclusion and sends people into remote villages that an American diplomat has never seen.

Taylor says the policy keeps the State Department from hiring Americans who are some of the most knowledgeable and experienced with HIV. It threatens to undermine the Bush administration $15 billion international initiative on AIDS, which, ironically, seeks to greatly increase access to therapy so that those at the heart of the pandemic can lead longer, more productive lives.

Taylor says the policy 'ties up our moral authority to speak authoritatively on HIV [as a country] with a policy that doesn't allow people with HIV to serve their country.' He would like the State Dept. to come to its senses, and his lawsuit may be the way to do that.


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