At 22 years old, Rachael Leestamper became pregnant by her abusive, controlling boyfriend. Her life was turned upside down when her doctors told her she was HIV-positive.

Luckily, Rachael’s son was born HIV-negative. She took him and left her boyfriend, becoming an advocate. She works with the Valley AIDS Council to educate the public about HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, urging people to get tested. She’s now married and the virus in her system isn’t detectable, thanks to her medications.

Apparently, she’ll have to spend some time educating a salon owner who rescinded a job offer once she learned of Rachael’s status.

“I disclosed my status to the salon owner and she was OK with it,” Rachael said. “Then two days later, I got a bunch of messages from her on my phone stating that because of my situation — and that I’m so open about it, that with her new salon being open — that she could no longer offer me the job.”

CBS 4 News contacted The Vanity Lash. The owner refused to speak on camera but claimed they’d be making a statement. That statement never came.

In a demonstration of true badassery, Rachael organized a protest outside of the salon.

“I just want people to understand that this isn’t right,” Rachael said. “That’s all, like, I really want is for people to understand that this can happen to anybody and that I’m not going to harm anybody.”

Here’s what I want people to understand:

1.) Get educated about HIV. There’s no excuse not to be, especially if you’re working in the beauty industry.

2.) The ADA and the EEOC protect HIV-positive individuals from employer discrimination.

Not only does the ADA protect HIV-positive individuals, it protects people who are regarded as having (rumored to have) AIDS or HIV, and those who are in close relationships with people who are HIV-positive. What does this mean?

  • You can’t discriminate against someone who has HIV.
  • You can’t discriminate against someone you suspect has HIV.
  • You can’t discriminate against someone with a spouse/partner/child/roommate who has HIV.

If a person is qualified to do the job, it’s highly inadvisable (not to mention unethical) to rescind a job offer on the basis of their HIV status.

“But Tina, we work closely with the public. Doesn’t an HIV-positive professional present a health and safety concern?”

Unless we’re considering potential side effects from the medications used to manage HIV (all of which are highly unlikely to cause any concern in the beauty salon), no. Even if the employer were concerned about the health and safety of the clients, the ADA doesn’t permit them to make judgments based on “generalizations, ignorance, fear, patronizing attitudes, or stereotypes.” Employers are required to establish that a real threat exists “through objective, medically supportable methods.”

Transmission of HIV will rarely be a legitimate “direct threat” issue. If HIV-positive surgeons are clear to operate in the United States, you’ll have a hard time convincing anyone that an HIV-positive stylist shouldn’t be permitted to work on the basis of their status.

However, the ADA only Requires Employers With fifteen or more employees to comply.

Yeah, you read that right, and no, it doesn’t make any sense to me either. As far as I’m concerned, this isn’t a legal issue, it’s a moral one. Denying a qualified person a position on the basis of something they have no control over is wrong. HIV-positive individuals don’t deserve to be ostracized or excluded.

This salon owner’s ignorance is shameful and her actions are deplorable. I’m certain she’s aware of this, or she would have had the decency to discuss her reasons to Rachael’s face instead of through text messages.

Character weakness and cowardice won’t make for successful or effective leadership. Legally, she may walk away from this, but at the very least, she owes Rachael an apology.

You may not have to rely on the ADA 15-employee requirement, but many states and cities have their own anti-discrimination laws to protect workers. (Unfortunately, the anti-discrimination laws in Texas are about as useful as a screen door on a submarine.)

If you believe you’ve been the victim of HIV discrimination, speak with an attorney or consider filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within 180 days. The EEOC investigates complaints and will either act to correct the problem or give the employee a “right to sue” letter, permitting the employee to pursue the employer in court for the job they were denied, back pay, benefits, or other compensatory and punitive damages.

For more information about the ADA’s employment requirements, please call the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission at (800)669-4000 (voice) or (800)669-6820 (TDD).

Keep being a badass, Rachael. <3

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