Under pressure from a lawsuit, the State Department is changing rules that had disqualified HIV-positive people from becoming U.S. diplomats.
Effective Friday, the department removed HIV from a list of medical conditions that automatically prevent foreign service candidates from meeting an employment requirement that they be able to work anywhere in the world.
The change was made after consultation with medical experts and in response to a lawsuit filed by an HIV-positive man who was denied entry into the foreign service despite being otherwise qualified, the department said.
Prospective diplomats with HIV will now be considered for the foreign service on a case-by-case basis, along with those with other designated ailments like cancer to determine if they meet the "worldwide availability" standard, it said.
Officials denied that the policy had ever intentionally discriminated against HIV-positive people and noted that the policy had applied only to incoming diplomats, not those who had contracted the virus or other diseases while in the foreign service.
"We have a policy requiring that all foreign service officers be worldwide available as determined by a medical examination at the time of entry into the foreign service," said Gonzalo Gallegos, a State Department spokesman. "That has not changed."
The decision was hailed by Lambda Legal, a New York-based group that advocates for the civil rights of homosexuals, bisexuals, transgender people and those with HIV and represented the plaintiff in the lawsuit against the State Department.
"The new guidelines mean that candidates for Foreign Service posts who have HIV will now be assessed on a case-by-case basis, as the law requires," said Bebe Anderson, the organization's HIV project director. "At long last, the State Department is taking down its sign that read, 'People with HIV need not apply.'"
The change in policy came less than two weeks before the trial in the lawsuit brought in 2003 by Lorenzo Taylor, a trilingual international affairs specialist who passed the difficult foreign service application process but was rejected after he told the department of his HIV status.
"Now people like me who apply to the Foreign Service will not have to go through what I did," Taylor said in a statement. "They and others with HIV will know that they do not have to surrender to stigma, ignorance, fear or the efforts of anyone, even the federal government, to impose second-class citizenship on them. They can fight back."
Lambda Legal said the suit had been settled "partly due to the new guidelines," but the State Department said the policy switch was not part of the settlement.
"The change simply reflects medical advances in the area of HIV care and maintenance," Gallegos said.