Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer No HIV? No Job.

By Mubarak S. Dahir

MAY 4, 1998:  Sitting in the waiting room of a well-respected Chicago AIDS organization, I shift restlessly in my chair, pretending to read the magazine in my hands. I catch myself feeling just a little nervous at the prospect of the afternoon before me.

No, I am not waiting for the results of an HIV test. I am here for a job interview.

I give up on the magazine and instead find myself reviewing the mental list of questions in my head, carefully going over my answers to the kinds of things I anticipate I might be asked as a candidate interviewing for the position of director of publications for a big-city AIDS agency.

But neither the worrying nor the self-coaching can prepare me for one question I will be asked several hours later, when I am seated in the office of the organization’s executive director. He is telling me about his tenure at the association, as well as its governing philosophies.

He volunteers he is HIV-positive. No big surprise, since the leaders of many AIDS organizations are similarly personally affected by the virus. He also tells me that this particular AIDS agency likes at least 51 percent of its employees to be people with HIV and AIDS.

Again, no surprise. Through the years, people with HIV and AIDS have demanded a bigger and bigger role in managing their lives, from the treatment they get at the doctor’s office to the policies that come out of the Oval Office. It makes perfect sense to me that organizations which represent people with HIV and AIDS should be largely composed of people with HIV and AIDS.

What I can’t understand is how this agency can so nonchalantly violate hard-won federal law – law which was crafted specifically to include protection for people with HIV and AIDS – in order to meet its quota of HIV-positive employees.

As my interview unfolds in the executive director’s office, I am asked questions which are clearly aimed at discovering my HIV-status. Caught off guard, I divulge that I am not HIV-positive (as far as I know), and then proceed to launch into a somewhat feeble, somewhat self-conscious defense about why I don’t need to be HIV-positive to edit a magazine and newsletter for people with the virus.

Later on in the day, an assistant director raises the issue of my HIV-status again, and I go into an instant replay of my previous defense. (I am assured that being HIV-negative is not a “strike” against me as a candidate for the job, but that being HIV-positive would have been a “plus.”) When I leave the offices of the AIDS agency that afternoon, I can’t help feeling even more uncomfortable than I had been while twitching in my seat in the waiting room before the interview.

I have been on a serious job hunt in the past several months, and have been on at least a dozen interviews. I couldn’t help but wonder how I might have reacted had any other prospective employer dared inquire about my HIV-status.

“It’s not legal for any employer to elicit information [during a job interview] on a disability, including HIV,” Ronda Goldfein, a staff attorney at the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania tells me later.

This is not a sour-grapes column. I have not yet been either rejected by or offered a job with the Chicago AIDS agency where I interviewed, nor do I doubt that they do good works, generally.

What bothers me is the agency’s double standard. If we really want anti-discrimination laws to protect people – including people with HIV, who continue to run an extremely high risk of being discriminated against – then we can’t follow the rules when they suit us, and disregard them when they are inconvenient.

Mubarak S. Dahir is a former Memphian who now writes a column on gay issues from Philadelphia.

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