Following a landmark court ruling, the United States Armed Forces will no longer be able to fire service members because of their HIV status.
On April 6, Judge Leonie Brinkema of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ordered the U.S. Air Force to reverse its November 2018 decision to relieve two HIV-positive Airmen from duty. According to a lawsuit filed by advocacy groups Lambda Legal and Modern Military Association of America (MMAA), the anonymous plaintiffs were told they were fired just days before Thanksgiving.
Brinkema’s decision also impacted a second complaint filed on behalf of Sgt. Nicholas Harrison, who was denied a job in the DC National Guard in 2015 because of his HIV status. Officials reportedly informed Harrison that his bid to become an officer of the Judge Advocate General (JAG) was “not in the best interests of the military.”
Although Brinkema’s full decision was temporarily sealed, a written order explained that the decision applied to all HIV-positive service members who were “classified as ineligible for global deployment” despite having an undetectable viral load.
Civil rights groups representing the plaintiffs welcomed the court’s decision last week. Scott Schoettes, attorney and director of the HIV project at Lambda Legal, said in a statement that the verdict is “one of the toughest court decisions in more than two decades for people living with HIV.” Kara Ingelhart, senior counsel at Lambda Legal, added that it would remove barriers to discrimination for “approximately 2,000 service members currently serving while living with HIV”.
“Until these lawsuits, the Department of Defense was the only entity in the United States that was still legally permitted to discriminate against people living with HIV despite the existence of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act” , Ingelhart said in a press release.
In 2018, the military introduced a ‘Deploy or Move Out’ policy which critics say could lead to the mass deportation of HIV-positive service members. The Trump-era rule stated that troops who could not be deployed for 12 consecutive months lost their status as serving members of the US armed forces. The military does not allow people living with HIV to be deployed to war zones.
The court order won’t change the military’s policies on deployment, but advocates say it will help address the decades of stigma that HIV-positive service members have been subjected to. At the height of the AIDS crisis, soldiers diagnosed with HIV were moved to barracks known as the ‘HIV hotel’ and ‘leper colony’, according to a 1989 newspaper article. Los Angeles Times.
Despite rapid advances in testing and treatment over the past three decades, people living with HIV are not allowed to enlist in the US military. Only those who are diagnosed with HIV after joining the armed forces are allowed to serve in the army, navy, air force, coast guard or marine corps.
The military has also been criticized for the strict regulations it subjects HIV-positive service members to in its ranks. Like rolling stone reported in 2017, soldiers living with HIV are told not to share toothbrushes and razors with colleagues and are required to sign a “prescription for safe sex” after their diagnosis. The order tells service members to use contraception to prevent transmission of HIV to sexual partners, as well as pregnancy.
In light of the ruling, LGBTQ2S+ advocates have called on the US military to continue lifting regulations that make life harder for service members with HIV. Schoettes called the Pentagon’s HIV policies “outdated” and “arbitrary” and said that “properly managed HIV is a chronic disease that has little or no effect on overall health or daily activities. of somebody “.
As part of his LGBTQ2S+ Rights Platform During the 2020 presidential campaign, US President Joe Biden called for “reversing Department of Defense policies that perpetuate stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV”. It is not known whether he followed through on this commitment.