This is my experience wearing my HIV-positive t-shirt.   I decided to wear it as a went through U.S. Customs and Border Control when I was on my way back to the U.S. en route to the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City, Mexico.   As an artifact left over from the early days of the HIV epidemic (and in line with certain factions of right wingers in the U.S. today), the United States has a complete ban on the entry of HIV-positive persons who are not U.S. citizens and has a policy of deporting any foreigners who are found to be living with HIV or who test positive while in the U.S.   Because of this, I wanted to see the reaction of the immigration officials to me wearing my t-shirt as I entered the U.S. through JFK airport (particularly because I am a U.S. citizen and can’t be denied entry to my own country regardless of my HIV status).

I wore my salwar kameez for most of my 20+ hour journey from Mumbai to New York.   It was way more comfortable than jeans and a t-shirt!   But about an hour before we landed in New York, I got up to wash my face, brush my teeth, and of course, change into my HIV-positive t-shirt.   I’ve worn my t-shirt around Pune a few times and never really noticed people reacting to it.   But I have to say, as I got ready to walk out of the airplane toilet, I definitely felt more uncomfortable that I have at any other time wearing the shirt!   It was actually really strange.   I’ve worked in the HIV/AIDS field for about 5 years now and have been very involved on the community level, being asked many times – even by friends, family members, and dates! – if I was HIV-positive too.   It never bothered me or made me feel uncomfortable that people would assume by my life path that I might be positive myself.   I simply answered their questions and tried to educate them about HIV at the same time.   But as I walked back to my seat, I definitely felt people’s eyes follow me.   I don’t know if this was in my head more than it was in reality, but I definitely felt uncomfortable.

After we landed in New York, I proceeded to the immigration desk and as I was entering the queue one man said to his friend, ‘Look at that girl’s t-shirt!’.   I was walking pretty fast and before I realized what he said, he was long gone in the other direction, so I didn’t get a chance to really gauge his reaction.   I’m not sure if it was ‘Look at that girl’s t-shirt…that’s pretty cool’ or ‘Look at that girl’s t-shirt…why is she wearing something like that?’.   Other than this, going through immigration and customs was actually quite uneventful.   No one asked me about my t-shirt or seemed to react in any way.   I did get a number of extra questions about where I lived and what kind of work I did, but this may be more a product of extra security measures in place since I arrived on a flight from an Islamic country (I flew through the U.A.E), rather than anything to do with my shirt.   I am sure it also helped that I am a U.S. citizen.   Someone without citizenship and wearing the same t-shirt may not have had such an easy time.   I actually considered wearing it on my return flight back through the U.A.E since they also have a policy of denying entry to HIV-positive foreigners, but I decided not to push my luck since I really didn’t need any problems with Emrati immigration despite what an interesting social experiment it would have been!

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