Obama Forges Forward on Gay Issues: Ends HIV Travel Ban, Reauthorizes Ryan White Act

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday October 30, 2009

Two days after signing the historic Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act--the first federal law to extend protections to GLBT Americans--President Barack Obama addressed two other issues seen by gay Americans as crucial to the cause of equality.

The president signed into law legislation that re-authorizes the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Treatment Extension Act. The law provides funds for another four years to programs that provide medicine and care for needy people living with HIV/AIDS. An estimated 500,000 individuals rely on the program to maintain their treatment regimens.

President Obama also announced the end of a long-standing ban on HIV-positive visitors to the United States. The ban had been in place since the 1980s, when the means of transmission of the virus was poorly understood; in 1993, however, long after it was known that HIV cannot be casually transmitted, Congress acted to reaffirm the ban. In 2008, President George W. Bush signed legislation to rescind the ban, but nonetheless, still-extant U.S. Department of Health & Human Services regulations prevented HIV-positive travelers from entering the country without first obtaining difficult-to-secure visas. As a result, sixty Canadian would-be participants in the North American Housing and HIV/AIDS Research Summit in Washington, D.C. last June were denied permission to enter the United States.

GLBT equality lobbying organization the Human Rights Campaign issued a press release praising Obama. Said Joe Solmonese, the head of the group, "We thank the President for taking these tremendous steps today on behalf of people with HIV and AIDS. Today's actions signal both to Americans and to the world that the United States is a nation that will care for those most in need at home and will no longer close the door to HIV-positive people abroad. Today, President Obama has extended one of our nation's proudest responses to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and finally erased on our of most shameful."

The office of Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and co-authored the bill singed by then-president Bush, also issued a statement.

Said Senator Kerry, "Today a discriminatory travel and immigration ban has gone the way of the dinosaur and we're glad it's finally extinct.... We've now removed one more hurdle in our fight against AIDS, and it's long overdue for people living with HIV who battle against stigma and bigotry day in and day out."

The statement also quoted Immigration Equality executive director Rachel B. Tiven, who said, "People living with HIV will no longer be pointlessly barred from this country.... Every day, Immigration Equality hears from individuals and families who have been separated because of the ban, with no benefit to the public health. Now, those families can be reunited, and the United States can put its mouth where its money is: ending the stigma that perpetuates HIV transmission, supporting science, and welcoming those who seek to build a life in this country."

In 2008, the Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation Kerry co-authored with former Senator Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) to lift the statutory travel and immigration ban as part of the President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) reauthorization.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.