“How soon can you get out of Canada?” asked the administrative officer at the U.S. Consulate in Toronto in October 1995 when I was informed that my application for disability retirement—due to my advanced HIV/AIDS—had been approved.
“What?” I asked.
“Now that you’re officially retired, the State Department has liability issues with you remaining in Canada. I need to know how soon you can get out.”
He was trying to be kind and not confrontational but nonetheless all I heard were those last two words: get out.
This was the mid-1990s, before treatments became available that extended the lives of those of us with HIV. In 1995, after I pressed relentlessly for a life expectancy number, my doctor had told me that based on my lab numbers and what medications were available then, I could expect to last another eighteen months at most. Things were that grim, with HIV-positive individuals often moving from a first hospitalization to death in mere months.
What no one had prepared me for was the sundering from the Foreign Service when my disability application was approved. A cable had come from Washington on October 20, 1995—four months after I had filed for early retirement—informing the Consulate that my application had been approved. I was told that from that moment on I was no longer permitted in the Consulate building, that I should pack up all my personal belongings and leave the building as quickly as possible.
“You’re no longer an employee. The U.S. government has liability issues with you now. You need to get out of Canada as quickly as you can. I don’t mean to pressure you. I know you just learned that you’re a retiree but the State Department wants me to cable them back when you’re leaving Canada.” I had no answer. That morning I had been working on a report about some trends at the Toronto Stock Exchange. There was work I still wanted to complete.
I had been HIV-positive ever since the test became available in 1985. The Foreign Service requires a physical examination every two years to maintain worldwide availability to serve as a diplomat. In 1987, when I had my physical exam, an HIV test was conducted, and the Department was informed that I was positive.
I had no symptoms then, and, although there were no medications available to treat the disease, I continued to work like anyone else. I had assignments in Dubai, Damascus, and Casablanca. I was good at my job and was promoted rapidly. Still, as a gay man, I had to be careful about my sexuality. At that time, you could be fired for being gay. When my security clearance came up for review in 1991, the security officers told me they knew I was gay, but since I was “closeted,” the only way they could renew my security clearance was by interviewing a family member about my sexuality.
I was confused.
“You’re at risk for blackmail as a closeted gay man. If someone in your family knows about your sexuality, we can interview them and that removes the threat of potential blackmail.” The whole blackmail question was a Catch-22. You couldn’t be open about your sexuality or risk being fired. But they wanted you to be open (at least with someone in your family) so that you couldn’t be blackmailed. That weekend, I went home and discussed this with my parents, to whom I wasn’t officially out. They said they’d known that I was gay for a long time and had no issue with it. Diplomatic Security personnel interviewed them in the following weeks, and my security clearance was renewed.
I dodged that bullet, but this requirement to hide my sexuality took its toll as I struggled for balance between my working life and my personal life. I could not be open about any relationships, and I couldn’t react when other diplomats made jokes about gays, which was often. It was a very unwelcoming atmosphere to be gay in the Foreign Service in the 1980s and ’90s.
I am lucky to still be here in 2019. Given what the doctors told me back in Toronto, I had no expectation that new drugs would keep me alive this long. There is only gratitude for that turn of events. But remembering all of those HIV-positive people who never got the chance to grow old (I’m 63 now), I am driven with even more gusto to continue to be of service to others and to share my story.
The State Department was unprepared for how to handle those of us with HIV. In the early days of the epidemic, no one knew how bad it was going to get. So many young lives snuffed out before they had a chance to make a dent in our world. Today there are an estimated 1.1 million of us living in the United States with the virus, and more than 700,000 who died because of it.
I left Canada two weeks after I was told to get out. I had needed time to find a place to ship my things to in the U.S. and to figure out what it meant to be retired, looking my death in the eye. That was a lot to deal with at that time, and a little more compassion from the Department about how quickly an ex-employee could relieve them of their “liability issues” would have gone a long way to making my transition a less harrowing one.
Michael Varga is a playwright, actor, and fiction writer. His Peace Corps novel, Under Chad’s Spell, is available on Amazon. Three of his plays have been produced, and his columns have appeared in many newspapers and journals. For other works, visit his website: michaelvarga.com.
This essay was first published on the website of The Gay & Lesbian Review (glreview.org).