Jamra primary scholl for children affected by HIV/AIDS, drugs or poverty, Senegal (c) Nell Freeman/Alliance Participants in the Photovioce project, Ecuador © Marcela Nievas for the Alliance
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The impact of HIV-related travel restrictions


Aids Alliance

The International Task Team on HIV-related Travel Restrictions, established by UNAIDS in January 2008, has issued a report recommending the elimination of all HIV-specific restrictions on entry, stay and residence. Accompanying the report is a collection of personal narratives from some of those affected by such restrictions. Here the Alliance’s Shaun Mellors – a member of the Task Team – shares his own experiences of being an HIV positive visitor to the United States.

It was a hot humid day in New York, June 1994. The athletics stadium was full of spectators as the athletes’ parade slowly inched its way in, like a giant centipede. The South African team wore wonderfully camp, Zebra print outfits, with the new Y-Front South African Flag proudly stitched over our hearts. I heard the public announcer say, “And we welcome South Africa back to the international arena” as the crowd stood up en masse, cheering and shouting for the small South African team at the Gay Games 1994. My eyes filled with emotion, my heart filled with pride as we walked hand-in-hand into the stadium – a free South Africa.

"In these Games, I have no rivals, only comrades in Unity" - The Athlete’s Oath.

Gay Games IV coincided with the 25 year Stonewall celebration and New York was full of proud gay, bisexual and transgendered women and men. So it was with an immense sense of pride and new found strength that I responded to a question from a journalist as to whether there were any HIV positive athletes in the South African Team. Having come out publically in South Africa about ten years earlier, I had no problem with speaking about my status in New York, at the Gay Games, in this climate of pride and solidarity.

The journalist wanted to know whether I had applied for the “HIV Waiver” to participate in the games and I indicated I had not. The story of my threatened deportation made the Washington Post.

After the games I returned to South Africa feeling renewed, revitalized and proud of my country and of being a gay man. I felt legitimized and had a sense of belonging.

My problems began in earnest when I had to apply to renew my US visa a year later. I was working in Amsterdam for the Global Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (GNP+), and had to travel to the US for a meeting. I once again saw that dreaded question on the visa application form asking me whether I had or had previously had a communicable disease. My heart was pounding, I looked around to see if anyone was watching me, and I marked NO. I submitted my application and was asked to come back later that afternoon.

I returned to the embassy thinking I would simply collect my visa and be ready to fly to the US, but when my name was called I was asked to go to a special window on the side. A rather stern looking woman said there was a problem with my visa application form and asked if there was anything I wanted to say, and whether I was hiding something. I could feel my heart beat in my throat, I started perspiring as she informed me that I was not being issued a visa, that I had committed a criminal offence in obtaining my previous visa fraudulently, and that it would be very difficult to obtain a visa to enter the US ever again. I tend to get very arrogant and obnoxious when I perceive I am being attacked, so I knew that any attempted challenge would come out wrong and possibly land me in an even more difficult situation.

Fortunately GNP+ had contacts with colleagues in the White House AIDS Program and through a concerted effort it was agreed that I would be issued with an HIV waiver Section 212(a)(1)(A)(i) to attend the meeting. Little did I realize that I was also to be recorded in the Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS) as being HIV positive and having tried to obtain a visa fraudulently.

I try to avoid travelling to the US now. On those rare occasions when I have to travel for work related matters, I put my pride in my pocket, know I will have a horrible experience at the embassy and probably the airport too, and ensure I have at least 6-8 weeks to apply for my waiver. The challenge is that I am deemed a criminal. That is not necessarily linked to the fact that I am HIV positive; the computer says I have tried to obtain my visa fraudulently.

- Shaun Mellors.

You can learn more about HIV-related travel restrictions by reading other narratives and the Task Team’s report.