Kevin Deese's dream of becoming a Navy officers was deferred by discrimination, but he hasn't given it up.
"The Naval Academy teaches a commitment to naval service, a mission that I took to heart," Deese says. "The denial of my service seems so arbitrary and out of step with the reality of living with HIV."
Deese joined a member of the Air Force to sue the Department of Defense for discrimination. The federal lawsuit, in which they're represented by Lambda Legal, the Modern Military Association of America, and private attorneys, seeks their reinstatement as well as a declaration that their constitutional rights were violated. In September, Judge Richard D. Bennett of the U.S. District Court in Maryland denied the Trump administration's request to dismiss their suit, so Deese will get his day in court.
As a student at the U.S. Naval Academy Deese received excellent performance reviews. In 2014 he applied for the Navy's selective nuclear submarine program, plus an optional dive program. A required medical screening revealed he was HIV-positive. He was told he could not be commissioned as an officer because of it. Despite a physician pronouncing him fit for duty, he was discharged in 2017.
"The truth is that the government has no compelling or public-serving reason to bar my military service or that of anyone else living with HIV," Deese says. "But it takes people like my co-plaintiff... saying, 'This is not right,' to make change."
"There is a significant racial equity dimension to this issue," Deese adds. "Given the way that HIV impacts people of color... I am proud to be able to bring a face to this issue, but I also am conscious that my white face does not tell the whole story."
Despite the "ugliness" he has faced, Deese says, "You will be surprised at how many people will be in your corner," when fighting injustice.