A Los Angeles barbershop is facing down a Lambda Legal lawsuit for allegedly refusing to cut a man’s hair because he is HIV-positive.
Nikko Briteramos, 34, says that the owner of King of Kuts barbershop in Leimert Park told him he couldn’t risk serving positive people because word might reach his celebrity clients.
“It was a small loss, maybe even a greater loss of dignity to some degree, but I’m tough enough to battle that,” said Briteramos. “But the fact that it was presented to me as this sort of matter of fact, like anyone would do the same sort of way, that’s what gave me the impression that this was a broader social issue.”
Briteramos had been a regular at King of Kuts prior to the incident. But the trouble started, he said, when his former barber from Chicago coincidentally started working at the shop last October.
Briteramos made international headlines as a college freshman at Huron University in South Dakota when he was arrested for criminal HIV exposure in 2001. At 19, he learned he might be positive after donating blood, according to court documents. Before confirming his diagnosis, Briteramos engaged in sexual activity with a female student at the college. The campus launched community-wide testing using his photo, and his story and status were widely publicized.
The fallout cost Briteramos his basketball scholarship. He dropped out of school.
HIV criminalization laws are now largely seen as counterproductive to halting the virus because studies have shown they heighten stigma and discourage testing.
In Briteramos’ case, the very public arrest followed him and deeply impacted his life.
When Briteramos walked into King of Kuts last October, his former Chicago barber told the owner of the shop about Briteramos’ difficult past.
“When it should have been Nikko’s turn, Rambo, the owner of King of Kuts, came outside to speak with him,” his lawsuit states. “He told Nikko that he would not cut his hair and the shop could not serve him because of his HIV status.”
Briteramos said, after everything he had been through, he had come to expect that response from people.
“I felt bad but at the same time, I wasn’t 100 percent devastated,” he said. “I was frustrated in the very least.”
But Briteramos recognized that in some parts of the country, there was just one barbershop to get a haircut.
Lambda Legal HIV Project Director Scott Schoettes says cases like Briteramos’ deeply impact marginalized people beyond the door of a single business or incident.
“The service itself can have varying degrees of import and urgency, so if someone’s going in to get healthcare services and perhaps even in an emergency situation obviously the discrimination there is going to feel a lot harder to deal with and have greater consequences,” said Schoettes.
Briteramos’ suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, alleges the cuttery violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and California’s non-discrimination law.
It seeks to cease the alleged discrimination and to award Briteramos unspecified damages.
“Justice has to begin with a sort of apology at the very least, a taking back of that position that you wouldn’t cut someone’s hair, irrespective of their opinion of one’s own clientele,” said Briteramos.
The lawsuit has been filed alongside the launch of a new public education campaign by Lambda and the Black AIDS Institute (BAI) that aims to reduce stigma around HIV in Black communities.
Phill Wilson, CEO and founder of the Black AIDS Institute, said Briteramos’ case highlights the imperative of confronting discrimination to end the epidemic.
“In addition, as a Black organization, we have to be ever vigilant in confronting injustice,” Wilson said. “It is a part of our survival. We fight those injustices to survive–and this is a case about injustice. It’s about bias. It’s about bigotry. It’s about discrimination. We have an obligation to be at the forefront of that effort; that’s essential.”
King of Kuts could not be reached for comment.