'It was insulting to learn the LA Police Commission was in charge of certifying massage therapists… [It] was messing with the wrong HIV+ massage therapist.'

I had to Fight for My Right to Work
Story and Recording by Andrea de Lange

I’m Andrea de Lange and this is my story about what happened to me starting in 1987, when I tested positive for HIV.

I was 23. My boyfriend and I had been living together for a year, and we called each other “soulmates.” But HIV is a litmus test for whether someone really is a soul mate, and John failed miserably.

He treated me like a leper every single day! I was afraid of being single, so I tolerated his rage and cruelty for the next two years. Finally, I kicked his ass out.

All that abuse hacked away at my self-esteem. The support of my friends and family helped me through that scary and stressful time. Being a full-time college student at Cal State Northridge and doing a lot of public speaking and interviews also helped. It rechanneled my pain and fear into ways I could benefit others.

Dr. Tilkian gave me hope that I could stay healthy. I became involved in alternative treatments through holistic healers I met at Louise Hay’s weekly Hayrides and at Marianne Williamson’s Center for living. I became healthier than ever.

This helped me separate myself from all the fatalistic dogma medical sources and the media were imposing on anyone HIV-positive. We were slapped with timelines: supposedly, we could remain asymptomatic for up to five years. Then we’d get AIDS, and succumb to a nightmarish death, within two years. AZT helped fulfill that prophecy, usually much quicker than the timeline.

I got my Bachelor’s in Art, then completed a Master’s program in counseling. While doing an internship, I bought a ’52 Packard from a friend; then side-hustled as a driver and extra on the film Ed Wood. Johnny Depp’s bodyguard and driver became my husband.

Ben and I moved to Albuquerque, and I worked in the HIV field over the next four years. My career was great. But my marriage? Not so much. I ended it after three years.  And that, along with several other stressful things, led to my burn out.

I knew of the New Mexico School of Natural Therapeutics, and I completed the school’s six-month, 750-hour program for massage therapy.  I returned to LA as a nationally certified massage therapist, and picked up a permit application. It was insulting to learn LA Police Commission was in charge of certifying massage therapists – but it got worse. Applicants needed to submit a doctor’s letter stating they were HIV- and Hepatitis C- negative!

I knew the U.S. Supreme Court added HIV to the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1997. The LA Police Commission was messing with the wrong HIV+ massage therapist.

I contacted the HIV & AIDS Legal Services Alliance, and they provided me with a lawyer. The Police Commission was funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, so Brad Sears and I literally made a federal case about it.

Our grievance ended after a year, and we won. The commission had to remove all discriminatory wording from permit applications and send permits to anyone previously denied one because of HIV or Hep C.  Plus, they had to conduct HIV educational trainings for their staff.

Recently, Brad told me he cited our case in another discrimination case. That is one of many things that make me think it was all worth it.