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“I Am More Than Just a Virus, I Am a Human Being”–HIV-Positive Dutch Man Among First to Visit US Legally After 22-Year Ban

StoryJanuary 08, 2010
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Gay rights groups around the world are praising the United States for lifting a twenty-two-year ban that barred foreigners who have HIV from legally entering the country without an official waiver. The United States was one of only about a dozen countries that barred people who have HIV. On Thursday, Clemens Ruland of Holland became one of the first known HIV-positive people to legally visit the United States since the travel ban was lifted. In a Democracy Now! exclusive interview, Clemens Ruland joins us in our studio along with his partner, Hugo Bausch, and Boris Dittrich, the LGBT advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Gay rights groups around the world are praising the United States for lifting a twenty-two-year ban that barred foreigners who have HIV from legally entering the country without an official waiver. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. The ban covered both visiting tourists and foreigners seeking to live here. President Obama announced the ban would be lifted in October, but the rules didn’t change until this week.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Twenty-two years ago, in a decision rooted in fear rather than fact, the United States instituted a travel ban on entering into the country for people living with HIV/AIDS. Now, we talk about reducing the stigma of this disease, yet we’ve treated a visitor living with it as a threat. We lead the world when it comes to helping stem the AIDS pandemic, yet we are one of only a dozen countries that still bar people, from HIV, from entering our own country. If we want to be the global leader in combating HIV/AIDS, we need to act like it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The United States was one of only about a dozen countries that barred people who have HIV. In 1989, the US ban made international headlines when a Dutch AIDS educator named Hans Paul Verhoef attempted to travel to a gay and lesbian conference in San Francisco. He was detained in Minnesota and jailed for four days after the AIDS drug AZT was found in his luggage.

AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday, another Dutch man, Clemens Ruland, became one of the first known HIV-positive people to legally visit the United States since the travel ban was lifted. On Thursday afternoon, he flew into New York’s JFK International Airport with his partner, Hugo Bausch, who is HIV-negative. Clemens Ruland was diagnosed with HIV in ’97 after being infected by an ex-lover in New York. Under the travel ban, he has been barred from returning to New York until now.

Well, Clemens Ruland and Hugo Bausch join us now in the studio here in New York, along with Boris Dittrich, advocacy director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch.

We welcome you all, and welcome to New York.


HUGO BAUSCH: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It has been quite a journey for you. Talk about what the trip was like last night.

CLEMENS RULAND: Well, the trip was very exciting. And even already at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, it was busy with the press. And we had a perfect flight over here, and then a lot of attention when we arrived at the airport and were welcomed by Boris Dittrich and a Dutch consul.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you asked questions when you came to JFK?

CLEMENS RULAND: Yeah, we gave interviews at the airport.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you asked questions by Customs officials?

CLEMENS RULAND: No, it actually went the same way like I was used to in all the other times in the past that I flew into the US. So, in that sense, it was no difference. It was a difference for me, because it felt totally different. In the past, for example, five years ago, when I flew in, I had to lie, like thousands of other people, lie about my HIV status to be able to visit friends here in New York.

AMY GOODMAN: Why they had — where had they asked you about your HIV status that you had to lie?

CLEMENS RULAND: Well, they don’t ask you, but because I’m depending on my medication, I have to carry it with me. And to get it is safe into the country, I always carried it in my hand luggage. So it means if they check you at Customs, they might find your medication. And in that way, they find out you’re HIV-positive.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Boris Dittrich, how often did the US government — the cases where the ban was actually exercised or imposed on travelers coming into the United States?

BORIS DITTRICH: Well, actually, on a yearly basis, we know about cases of people who have been arrested and sent back to the country of origin, because, for instance, in the hand luggage, officers found some medication. And nowadays, you need to apply for a visa to the United States seventy-two hours in advance in your home country, and in the questionnaire there were questions about, do you have HIV as a disease? And if you filled in “yes,” then already your access was denied. So a lot of people who were honest about their status were denied access to the US.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the struggle in this country to have this policy, the ban, lifted, Boris.

BORIS DITTRICH: Well, Human Rights Watch and a lot of other groups were campaigning against this ban for years and years, because we know that in other countries there was no ban, and even WHO and UNAIDS and all kind of international and medical standards said it’s ridiculous to have a ban, because it is actually a fake protection, because people go underground. You give a stigma. You discriminate people living with HIV. And because they are not honest and when they want to enter the US, it gives such a negative approach that people don’t want to be tested, for instance. So, actually, it’s counterproductive. And this has been proved in many reports. But the US government didn’t want to change, until President Bush decided to change it. And then, of course, President Obama finished the job recently.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what are some of the other countries that still have a ban?

BORIS DITTRICH: Well, the good news is that, for instance, South Korea also lifted the ban. They were also persuaded by all the data and facts.

But the Russian Federation, for instance, is a country that still bars people who are living with HIV to enter the country. And you get ridiculous situations. For instance, I was invited to attend an HIV/AIDS meeting in Moscow. And people who wanted to talk about what it is like to live with HIV were not allowed into Russia to talk about it. Well, the Russian government was supporting this meeting. So, of course, you can sometimes get a waiver, but it’s very unclear, and it would be a good idea if Russia also would lift the HIV ban.

AMY GOODMAN: Hugo Bausch, you traveled with your partner Ruland. You’re HIV-negative.


AMY GOODMAN: What did this feel like for you coming into this country? This, we believe, is the first time someone has legally come into the country since the ban was lifted earlier this week.

HUGO BAUSCH: Well, it was much, much more relaxed to travel to the States, because five years ago, I was more excited than Clemens, because he is living with HIV, and so he’s used to having all these questions and having to deal with it. But to me, it was a — I traveled with him, and I experienced also a lot of anxiety, because it could mean that we would be sent back the same day, if it was discovered.

AMY GOODMAN: Clemens, you won an essay? This is why your trip was sponsored?


AMY GOODMAN: What was the essay?

CLEMENS RULAND: Well, we actually won it by his cartoon. Hugo made a cartoon. He’s an illustrator. He made a cartoon, and together we made a little poem that comes to it. And in that poem, it refers back to the fact that I got infected here and actually that I turn my face now to the US and that I’ll love to come in here as the way as I am, HIV-positive, and that I’m more than just a virus. I’m just a normal person like everybody else. And you don’t have to be afraid for people with HIV and AIDS.

AMY GOODMAN: And Hugo, the illustration? What were you illustrating?

HUGO BAUSCH: I was illustrating someone flying in alongside the Statue of Liberty, which was welcoming him — “Hey, buddy, welcome to the US” — while he was sitting in a small plane pointing towards New York City.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are your plans this weekend?

HUGO BAUSCH: First, we go to MOMA.

AMY GOODMAN: To the Museum of Modern Art?



BORIS DITTRICH: And you’re going to spend some money here in New York.


CLEMENS RULAND: We shop ‘til we drop. We came with one suitcase; we’re going to leave with at least two.

BORIS DITTRICH: So, you see, it’s good for economy, as well, that people living with HIV can enter the country.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And your sense, having spent time both here in the United States and in Europe, as to the progress in the United States in terms of public opinion, in terms of being able to adequately accept and deal with people with HIV?

CLEMENS RULAND: Oh, I think this will support the HIV organizations here a lot, that the exchange between people will get more and better. And so, I think this is for the best of anybody —- everybody, sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: Boris, you mentioned earlier that it was actually begun under Bush, the attempt to lift this ban -—


AMY GOODMAN: — removing it from a list of diseases that would be banned. Does that surprise you? And why was President Bush the one who was doing this?

BORIS DITTRICH: Well, he was the one doing this because there was so many — much proof that it was actually a counterproductive measure and that it was only discriminatory and stigmatizing. There have been a lot of international agencies, like I told you, UNAIDS, WHO, who said this doesn’t serve any purpose. It’s against international human rights standards. So I guess the Bush administration was persuaded to do it. And also because other countries had already lifted their ban.

It surprised me because, especially in Europe, President Bush doesn’t have — let’s say, he’s not known for progressive decisions. So, when these two guys left the Netherlands, there was a lot of publicity in Europe about it. And what I learned from journalists was that they all said, well, this is actually one of the positive things that the Bush administration has done. And, of course, President Barack Obama finished the job, as he told himself, by finishing it. But it was really set out by the Bush administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the AIDS conference that can now be held in this country and the effect that this ban has had.

BORIS DITTRICH: Well, for instance, in 2001 and 2006, the United Nations here in New York organized a big meeting about HIV/AIDS. And I attended both meetings. And I remember that in 2001, HIV activists from other countries, some of them, were not allowed to enter the country to attend the meeting.

Now, the ban has been lifted. The US can organize a big international conference. And I heard President Obama say we want to be the leader in fighting HIV/AIDS. So it will be very good to have such a conference here in New York or elsewhere in the United States and invite all kind of academics and people living with HIV to talk about the issue and to develop new approaches. This year, 2010, is also the year of universal access to testing, to treatment, to healthcare, in relation to HIV/AIDS. So it would be a great thing to start preparing for such an international conference.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’m curious. You were talking about how the Bush administration actually initiated the reversal of this policy. But then why did it take so long after President Bush left office, a year, for it to actually be implemented?

BORIS DITTRICH: Yeah, unfortunately, I’m not an expert on the, let’s say, American political process, but I know Congress had to have a look at it. Human Rights Watch sent several letters to the administration in order to support the idea of lifting the ban. And there was a grace period of two months after the announcement before it could take place. There are a lot of websites and forms that need to be changed, because they still ask for your HIV status, and now that doesn’t have to be taking place anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: Clemens, I’d like to end with you reading the poem that got you on this journey that landed you here last night.

CLEMENS RULAND: I’m honored to read it for you.

    No more lies
    No more pretending
    No more hiding
    In the crevices of exclusion

    to the land
    where once lay my destiny
    in one viral load

    Free I am
    Free to travel
    To hug, to share, love
    And once more be united

    Alive and proud
    I turn to you, America
    America, here I come
    Come as I am

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both very much for making your first stop here. Clemens Ruland, HIV-positive Dutch man who arrived in the United States last night, the first to come here legally after the ban this week was lifted. Hugo Bausch, his partner, illustrator in The Netherlands. And Boris Dittrich, he is the LGBT advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.

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