ACLU Fights Peace Corps On “HIV Discrimination”

The Peace Corp tries to keep thing copacetic, but some queer policies spurred the ACLU into full-on war mode.

Former volunteer Jeremiah Johnson contacted the group after being booted from the Corp for contracting HIV. Obviously the experience was not positive:

I joined the Peace Corps because I wanted to learn more about the world and help people. It was hard enough to learn that I had contracted HIV, but to then be shipped home and told I was unworthy of finishing my service was incredibly humiliating.”

Denver-based Johnson had been the sole volunteer in the Ukraine for thirteen months when he found out he had HIV. That country, unfortunately, has laws prohibiting HIV positive people from working, which is simply ridiculous. Even more absurd, when Johnson moved back the States, he asked the Peace Corp to assign him to another country. They refused and, in fact, listed HIV contraction as his reason for termination. It reads, quite callously,

Your current medical condition has not resolved. This condition limits your ability to peform your volunteer assignment and has the very real potential for further aggravation during the reained of your Peace Corps service.

Now the ACLU has sent a very angry missive reminding the Peace Corps that they’re breaking federal discrimination laws. The group also insists the Peace Corp revisit or reveal its policies on HIV infection.

Johnson’s Peace Corp Termination Letter [PDF]

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  • RPCV

    Jeremiah, my thoughts are with you. As a returned peace corps volunteer (hence my moniker, RPCV84), I served in Morocco just as HIV was beginning to blossom as a worldwide medical disaster. After my HIV + diagnosis in early 2001, I felt I needed to do something to renew my sense of purpose and make a charitable contribution to people less fortunate than myself. I thought mighty seriously about rejoining the Peace Corps, and I was told by a recruiter in the Washington DC Peace Corps office that my positive status would NOT be a disqualifier. I was told that as long as I was near a “reliable” laboratory to draw the periodic labs, Peace Corps would send the results to my then and current attending physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital to monitor my results. I was further informed that Peace Corps would ASSUME the costs of the rediculously-high daily treatments. Of course, this was in 2002; but, I find it hard to believe that Peace Corps would have changed its policy so dramatically to now view HIV + status in the manner they’ve communicated to you. I sure hope you get the legal help you need and prevail in your actions. I sense that nothing would be more enriching to you personally than being able to fulfill your volunteeer obligation (I know how it has forever changed my life!), and nothing would make me happier to know that I CAN serve as a volunteer (even though I need to take a boatload of medicine – ONE Atripla pill a day!!) to sustain my current excellent health when I retire from Uncle Sam in 6 years time!! I’ll be following your case as best I can, Jeremiah. I hope Queerty keeps us posted. Best of luck to you. Burt.

  • Michael Schmidt

    Remember one thing. Peace Corps Volunteers are NOT federal employees. They are volunteers. This allows the federal government to treat a volunteer different. Volunteers do NOT receive immunity when in the countries they serve. They are subject to local laws.

  • Phoenix (not the pale one)

    I wonder if he contracted HIV while serving in the Peace Corp. The former USSR has a skyrocketing HIV/AIDS infection rate. I doubt he had adequate medical care or safe working conditions.

    Or they may have booted him out for fear the public would be scandalized if it found out Peace Corp volunteers have sex and aren’t abstinent and pure as nuns.

  • RPCV

    Actually, Burt, Michael Schmidt is correct. The document to which you refer specifically states, “volunteers shall NOT be deemed officers or employees or otherwise in the service or employment of, or holding office under, the United States for any purpose.” Which means they are not federal government employees.

    I am not saying whether or not the PC should in fact admit people who are HIV+. What I am saying is that Jeremiah Johnson and the ACLU will need to make a case on a different basis.

  • ukrvol

    I would like to see Jeremiah Johnson’s medical separation appeal.

    According to what Burt relays, Peace Corps has policies in place for transferring HIV+ volunteers and, at least in Burt’s story, has made available the medical attention needed to enable HIV+ volunteers to continue to serve.

    If you look at J.J.s separation documents, you will notice that he was medically separated and he can contest this separation within a one year period by proving that his medical situation has been resolved. If J.J. really wants to serve, I wonder why J.J. went to the ACLU instead of gathering his medical documents and appealing the decision? If he indeed has already appealed, I’m surprised that the ACLU doesn’t have those documents posted, seeing as they would support his case of discrimination. I don’t think JJ has used all of the tools disposable to him within the Peace Corps.

  • paulgoree

    First I think the ACLU does what they are obligated to do and that’s protecting rights. In this case it’s odd that Mr. Johnson’s host country had legislation that was against him and others with HIV (I’d be prohibited too). If anyone has doubt that the ACLU is something other than what they are, then read this story by another HIV Peace Corp Volunteer, whose situation was similar to Mr. Johnson. I am proud that the ACLU did get involved and wouldn’t expect nothing less of them. Elizabeth Tunkle story (attached link) is inspirational and like Mr. Johnson’s story, opens the door for others, such as myself, who still have desire to serve in the Peace Corp, and now can even with a positive HIV diagnosis.

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