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HIV-Positive Service Members Get Their Day in Court Against Trump

Plaintiff Kevin Deese

Trump's Defense Department is fighting to uphold a policy of discharging or denying commissions to service members living with HIV.

A federal district court declined to dismiss a lawsuit from two service members discharged from the military because they are HIV-positive.

Deese & Doe v. Esper will move forward, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland ruled last week. The lawsuit challenges the current policy of the Defense Department, which prevents service members with HIV from deploying outside the U.S. without a special waiver that is rarely granted. These policies hinder the advancement of HIV-positive service members and are used as reasons to discharge some of them, as plaintiff Kevin Deese claims happened to him. 

"I'm glad that I will get my day in court,” Deese said in a statement. “It's important that people with HIV be allowed to follow their dreams, including serving their country through military service. Some of the bravest, strongest, and smartest people I have ever met live with HIV, and our armed forces deserve to benefit fully from their resiliency and commitment to service, rather than being held back by outdated and prejudicial policies. There is not a job in the world that a person living with HIV can’t do. I hope that this case helps to reset expectations about what is possible for people living with HIV." 

Lambda Legal, the Modern Military Association and the law firm of Winston & Strawn are fighting on behalf of Deese and John Doe, the anonymous service member who is also part of the lawsuit. In its ruling, the U.S. District Court made clear the plaintiffs had standing to sue.

"There is simply no basis to hold that officers must be free from HIV even if they are physically capable of service and would otherwise be able to deploy," the ruling read. "The military’s policy of withholding officer commissions from HIV-positive service members renders those service members second-class citizens. That is precisely what the equal protection clause forbids."

There are two separate lawsuits challenging the Pentagon's discriminatory HIV policies that are also advancing through the courts. 

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Neal Broverman