U.S. exempts Gay Games visitors from HIV Ban

Houston Voice     March 25, 2006

The U.S. government last month approved a blanket waiver that allows foreign visitors who are HIV positive to travel to the United States to participate in or attend the Gay Games VII Sports & Cultural Festival in Chicago in July.

The waiver provides a temporary, 20-day exemption from a U.S. immigration law that defines HIV as a communicable disease and declares that all foreign nationals with HIV are "inadmissible" to the United States.

The law provides for waivers that allow tourists and participants in special events such as conferences and athletic competitions to enter the country for up to 30 days. But foreign visitors must complete an application form disclosing their HIV status at U.S. consular offices or embassies in their home countries to obtain the waiver.

"It’s a shameful blot on this country," said Brent Minor, a member of the board of directors of the Federation of Gay Games, the organization that sponsors the quadrennial international gay athletic and cultural event known as the Gay Games.

"The world has changed," Minor said. "We know that AIDS can’t be spread through casual contact, and you can’t get it through airborne transmission. Yet the U.S. clings to this outdated and irrational policy."

Organizers of a competing gay athletics competition set to take place in Montreal two weeks after the Gay Games have cited the U.S. ban on HIV-positive visitors as one of several reasons why they expect their event, Outgames, to draw more participants and spectators.

Canada does not restrict visitors with HIV from entering that country. Outgames organizers have said the U.S. law would likely prompt a sizable number of gay athletes and gay visitors from Europe and Latin America to choose the Montreal event over the Chicago Gay Games.

A group of Canadians formerly involved with the Federation of Gay Games formed a rival organization to sponsor the Montreal Outgames following a dispute with the federation. When it became clear that the dispute could not be resolved, both groups initially predicted they would draw about 12,000 participants to each of their events.

But Outgames officials stated in a March 20 news release posted on its website that they expect to draw at least 16,000 participants in the athletic competition and as many as 250,000 visitors to Montreal.

Unlike the Chicago event, Outgames organizers decided to link the athletic events with a series of political and entertainment events, including Montreal’s annual Gay Pride parade and festival, an international gay rights conference, and a circuit party dance event.

Minor, an Alexandria, Va., resident and former member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, worked with Gay Games officials in Chicago to help obtain the HIV wavier through a process that involved four U.S. government agencies: the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Health & Human Services.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky also played a key role in persuading federal immigration officials to approve the waiver.

Gay Games officials noted that the U.S. approved a similar blanket waiver for foreign athletes and spectators attending the 1994 Gay Games in New York City.

"We are happy that all participants from outside the United States once again will be able to travel freely to attend the Gay Games this July," said Kathleen Webster, co-president of the International Federation of Gay Games.

Bush takes heat for waiver

The Illinois Family Institute and the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council issued statements opposing the government’s decision to approve a waiver for Gay Games participants. Both groups are long-time opponents of gay rights.

"The tragedy is that there are Americans who may well be infected with a deadly disease as a result of this most unwise decision," said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. "Why should this administration feel the need to bow to the politically correct crowd?"

Perkins pointed to the Gay Games website, which he noted listed entertainment activities as well as the athletic events.

"The entertainment includes links to bathhouses and clubs where illicit and illegal activity is allowed," Perkins said.

Gay Games spokesperson Kevin Boyer said Perkins singled out two bathhouses among a list of dozens of Chicago-area businesses that signed on as sponsors of the Gay Games and whose names are posted on the website.

"The vast majority of the information on our site is about the sports program," Boyer said. "Our social event links do not link to bathhouses. Our sponsor links link to two bathhouses, and in both cases, both of them are bona fide businesses. Both of them are licensed, and it’s irresponsible for [the Family Research Council] to suggest that the activity there is illicit or illegal."

The Gay Games website says more than 90 percent of the foreign visitors expected to participate in or attend the Chicago event would be coming from one of 27 countries in Europe and Asia, including Japan and Singapore, that have arrangements with the U.S. that don’t require visas for their citizens to enter the U.S.

Citizens with HIV from those countries are required to apply for a special travel visa associated the HIV waiver policy approved for the Gay Games, the website says.

The website cautions that visitors coming from developing countries could encounter problems entering the U.S. regardless of their HIV status. Visitors from such countries must obtain a U.S. visa that is often denied on grounds that the prospective visitor is likely to remain in the U.S. as an illegal immigrant.

Gay Games officials have said they would send letters to U.S. consular officials on the visitors’ behalf stating that the purpose of the visit is to attend the Gay Games.

"A letter from the Gay Games is not a guarantee that your application for a visa will be granted," the website states. "It is up to you as a visa applicant to prove to the U.S. consulate that your ties to your home country are so strong that you would not be likely to remain in the U.S. in violation of your visa."

Clinton vowed to overturn ban

Spokespersons for two U.S. gay legal groups, Immigration Equality and Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, said many foreign tourists and visitors ignore the law’s requirement that they disclose their HIV status and apply for a waiver. While most succeed in evading detection, U.S. customs or immigration agents have stopped and detained some HIV-positive visitors at ports of entry, such as airports, after the agents discovered HIV medication during a routine luggage inspection, according to the two groups.

In the case of immigrants, evasion of the law is far more difficult, said Immigration Equality attorney and spokesperson Victoria Nielson. Anyone applying for U.S. immigrant status must take a medical exam that includes an HIV test, Neilson said. HIV-positive immigrants can apply for exemptions under certain circumstances, such as political asylum if they face persecution in their home country, but such exemptions are difficult to obtain, she said.

The ban on HIV-positive foreigners began in 1987, when the Department of Health & Human Services added HIV to an existing list communicable diseases considered grounds for banning foreigners from visiting or immigrating to the U.S.

In 1992, then presidential candidate Bill Clinton promised to repeal the HIV ban, which existed as a public health regulation. In 1993, after taking office as president, Clinton’s effort to repeal the policy met stiff resistance in the then Democratic-controlled Congress.

Conservative Republicans, including Sens. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Don Nichols (R-Okla.), persuaded many of their Democratic colleagues that the HIV ban should remain in place.

Over Clinton’s objections, both the House and Senate approved an amendment introduced by Nichols to a National Institutes of Health authorization bill that enacted the HIV ban into law. Under the Nichols amendment, the HIV ban became part of the existing U.S. Immigration & Nationality Act, which governs most of the nation’s policies pertaining to immigration and foreign visitors.

AIDS activists and congressional Democrats were divided over whether to push Clinton to veto the NIH bill because it included AIDS-related research programs deemed crucial to fighting the disease.

Clinton signed the bill in 1993, making HIV the only communicable disease singled out by Congress in a statute that calls for banning infected foreigners from entering the U.S., either as visitors or immigrants.

The Nichols amendment states that aliens are "ineligible to receive visas and ineligible to be admitted to the United States" if they have "a communicable disease of public health significance, which shall include infection with the etiologic agent for acquired immune deficiency syndrome."

The Immigration & Nationality Act leaves it up to public health experts with HHS to determine whether other communicable diseases should be grounds for barring foreigners from entering the country.

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