I joined the public interest firm AIDSLaw of Louisiana in 2010, and faced the steep learning curve of legal and social needs of people living with HIV. HIV affects groups already lacking human rights protections, and as this became more and more uncomfortably apparent a human-rights based approach to providing legal services developed. My legal services were aimed at protecting clients from human rights violations—in the form of discrimination and access to health care, among others—committed against them by governmental and private entities. Governments have an affirmative duty to fulfill their human rights obligations, and I relied on this duty to enforce our client’s rights.
Fighting and winning public benefits for my clients diminished the economic marginalization that undermines so many basic rights. Providing help for clients with discrimination claims in developing damages for recovery. And my estate planning practice provided dozens of long-term partners every year to obtain the basic rights of people in state-licensed marriages: rights to inherit from one another, make medical decisions on each other’s behalf, and even visit each other in the hospital. My firm’s merger with a larger service organization allowed an even greater focus on human-rights, with a sharper eye toward mental health. Mental health issues often cause—and occur from—HIV related legal problems such as disability benefits and HIV discrimination.
All of these problems were exacerbated by the storm, which was the focus of talks to law students at Harvard and Boston Universities. The AIDS Gulf Coast Disaster is one of Hurricane Katrina’s most enduring legacies. While HIV/AIDS challenged the Gulf Coast before the storm—given the region’s historic marginalization, its people were some of America’s poorest—HIV/AIDS rates were on the decline. Katrina had an especially devastating impact on the lives of PLWHA. Years after the storm, the rates of AIDS and HIV continue to increase while PLWHA face stigmatization undermining their human and legal rights. Continuing catastrophes, such as the BP Oil Spill and Hurricane Isaac, make the disaster worse.