LGBTQ groups have hit the Department of Defense with lawsuits over a decades-old policy that prevents the deployment of HIV-positive service members.
Lambda Legal and OutServe-SLDN are taking aim at the ban as the Trump administration moves to implement a new “Deploy or Get Out” policy. The policy would result in the ejection of HIV-positive service members from the military because they are barred from deployment.
At the center of the two lawsuits are Sgt. Nick Harrison, a veteran who claims he was denied a promotion because of his status, and an unnamed plaintiff who alleges he was discharged because he is positive, even though he was found fit for duty.
“These oppressive restrictions are based on antiquated science that reinforces stigma and denies perfectly qualified service members the full ability to serve their country,” said Scott Schoettes, HIV project director at Lambda Legal, in a statement. “The U.S. Department of Defense is one of the largest employers in the world, and like other employers, is not allowed to discriminate against people living with HIV for no good reason.”
In the case of the unnamed Air Force plaintiff, he alleges he was commissioned as Second Lieutenant after graduating from Air Force Academy. But he was held as a cadet due to his HIV status and then discharged, according to his complaint.
According to court documents, Harrison completed two tours of duty in the Middle East before being diagnosed with HIV. He passed his bar exam, and a few years later, he was selected as Judge Advocate General Corps for the D.C. National Guard. But due to his positive status, the military wouldn’t commission him as an officer.
“I spent years acquiring the training and skills to serve my country as a lawyer,” Harrison said in a statement. “This should be a no-brainer. It’s frustrating to be turned away by the country I have served since I was 23 years old, especially because my HIV has no effect on my service.”
To make matters worse, Harris is a likely target of the Trump administration’s “Deploy or Get Out” policy announced in February. The policy, currently under review, would boot military personnel who are non-deployable for a year or more.
Officials estimate that “Deploy or Get Out” would impact 11 percent (or 235,000) of those serving on active duty, according to the Military Times. Those numbers would likely include service members with other medical conditions, members nearing retirement and those facing legal issues.
But LGBTQ groups contend that the military policy on HIV-positive service members has failed to keep pace with scientific breakthroughs that prevent the spread of the virus, like antiretroviral medications.
“These medical advances should have resulted in an overhaul of military policies related to people living with HIV,” the Harrison lawsuit contends. “Instead, the Department of Defense and the Army maintained the bar to enlistment and appointment of people living with HIV, as well as the restrictions on deployment, when they revisited these policies in recent years.”
The suits alleges the Department of Defense has violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution and seeks to retroactively commission Harrison and reinstate the unnamed Air Force veteran.
Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Carla Gleason declined to comment on the pending litigation.