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COMMENTARY ON DISCRIMINATION : Without an AIDS Anti-Bias Law, Message Is: We Don't Care : It wouldn't guarantee that Orange County sufferers are treated decently, but it would be the right thing to do.

January 13, 1991|JAN-AUSTIN FOUCHER | Jan-Austin Foucher is a free-lance writer in Anaheim

Orange County doesn't have an anti-discrimination law to protect people with AIDS, but we should.

In September, AIDS activists, as well as relatives and friends of people with the disease, gathered outside the County Hall of Administration to commemorate the AIDS deaths of more than 1,000 county residents. Among those in the candlelight ceremony were people suffering from AIDS--not only from the disease, but also from public reaction to it.

In Orange County, more than 1,500 people have been found to have acquired immune deficiency syndrome since the county began keeping statistics in the early 1980s, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. Thousands more harbor HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, but not with AIDS itself.

These, however, are just impersonal statistics, which say nothing of either the real people behind the numbers or of society's often-inhumane response to those with AIDS. Last June, despite having been offered evidence that incidents of bias against people with AIDS are common, the Orange County Board of Supervisors rejected, by a 3-2 vote, an anti-discrimination ordinance. This year, my friend Jim won't be able to tell the board of his encounter with discrimination. Jim, a longtime Orange County resident, died of complications from AIDS in September.

To me, Jim will never be just a statistic. He was a warm and caring friend and a unique and complex individual. He was also a deeply religious man. I'll always remember his cheerful voice, and even now, after these months, I sometimes think to call him, but then I remember.

He deserved the best that life had to offer, but he got AIDS instead.

When Jim's employers at a Huntington Beach convenience market discovered his condition, they suddenly refused to schedule him enough hours so that he could make a living, even though he was still physically able to work. In employment limbo, he was forced to quit.

Jim didn't have it in him to fight in court. He knew he didn't have time, especially since Orange County law may or may not have been on his side. Though Jim found another job, and worked until about three months before his death, an Orange County law should have backed him up so he could have kept his first job. But there was no such law. And Orange County remains the only major urban area in the state without an anti-discrimination ordinance designed to protect people with AIDS.

Organizations that support AIDS sufferers' rights--groups such as ACT-UP Orange County, ECCO and the Orange County Visibility League--have declared that they won't let the issue rest, although as of now, no date has been set to bring the issue back before the supervisors.

But it is only a matter of time before the supervisors will again have to choose whether to defer to those who oppose an anti-bias law, who will predictably appeal to ignorance and bigotry, or to respect the ideals of the U.S. Constitution, which calls for justice for all.

Where is justice when county residents with AIDS face the possibility of being fired, kicked out of their living quarters, or victimized in other ways because of their disease?

Though we've long known that the AIDS virus is not transmitted casually, there are still those who try to justify unequal treatment for those with AIDS. Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton) fought against a proposed anti-bias law in 1989 on the ground that it was an effort by gays to obtain special rights.

Many people with AIDS are gay or bisexual. So what? The county also has cases of pediatric AIDS and AIDS resulting from blood transfusions. The point is, simply, too many AIDS sufferers have been targeted for bias. That's why we need a law. They do not seek special treatment, only legal affirmation of their right to be treated with decency.

At its heart, the issue is about doing the right thing. In an address to Georgetown University in 1957, Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. declared that "the law is not an end in itself; nor does it provide ends. It is preeminently a means to serve what we think is right."

There are other Jims out there-- other good people who shouldn't have to fight both the disease and prejudice. But when discriminated against, AIDS patients need to know that the weight of law is on their side and that the right thing is still worth fighting for.

Because Orange County has no anti-discrimination law, while other urban areas in the state do, we give the impression that we not only care less about AIDS prejudice, but also care less about its sufferers. That's the wrong message to be sending. Moreover, it is fair to ask the supervisors why they have failed to pass an anti-bias law, when even President Bush, in a March address, said we must not tolerate discrimination against AIDS sufferers.

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