A federal district court last week ruled against the Trump administration’s request to dismiss a lawsuit by two former service members who claim they were unfairly dismissed from the military because they are living with HIV. The case, Deese & Doe v. Esper, was filed by Lambda Legal and the Modern Military Association of America (MMAA) along with pro bono co-counsel Winston & Strawn on behalf of U.S. Naval Academy graduate Kevin Deese and an unnamed graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy.
“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 decision 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.”
“I'm glad that I will get my day in court,” Deese said. “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armed forces deserve to benefit fully from their resiliency and commitment to service, rather than being held back by outdated and prejudicial policies.”
The 2018 lawsuit claims Deese and an unnamed U.S. Air Force Academy graduate were denied commissions as officers and discharged following graduation because they are living with HIV. The discharges came even though both men had the support of their superiors and military health care providers.
“By now, one would hope the administration would see the writing on the wall and stop defending policies that serve no purpose but to prevent these patriotic young men from serving their country,” Scott Schoettes, Counsel and HIV Project Director at Lambda Legal, said.
“Thanks to modern science, there is no legitimate reason to deny servicemembers living with HIV the ability to continue to serve their country without arbitrary restrictions on their assignments and ability to deploy,” Peter Perkowski, MMAA legal director, said.
Deese sees his case as a way of discarding antiquated policies and perceptions regarding the ability of persons living with HIV to serve their country. As he sees it, “there is not a job in the world” that a person living with HIV is not capable of performing.
“I hope that this case helps to reset expectations about what is possible for people living with HIV,” Deese observed.