Twenty-six-year-old Kevin Deese had wanted to serve his country in the military since before he was a teenager, and he expected to serve in the U.S. Navy following his graduation from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. But while he did eventually graduate, he was told he wouldn’t be commissioned and deployed overseas because of what amounts to discrimination against HIV-positive service members. He has thus joined a class of soldiers and would-be soldiers discharged for HIV.
It was a routine blood test by Naval Academy officials — right before he was set to graduate — that caused him to learn of his HIV-positive status. He was told his test had turned up abnormal numbers, and a follow-up HIV test came back positive.
It’s currently the U.S. military’s policy that service members who are HIV-positive cannot be deployed to foreign military posts for more than a year. They can thus be immediately discharged from the military, prohibited from being appointed as officers and prevented from enlisting altogether. The policy amounts to discrimination against positive people, who can be discharged for HIV.
Deese tells The Body:
So April Fool’s Day 2014, I’m eating lunch in the dining hall with my best friend, and a lieutenant I didn’t know comes over and ushers me to the commandant’s office, which is like the dean of students. “It’s not a good reason that you’re here,” the commandant says, and I start to panic. What did I do? Was I in trouble? I had no idea why. Then he tells me that I tested positive for HIV and my heart just dropped. It was not something I thought I had been at risk for. Then he says that I will not be commissioning as an officer along with my classmates. It was a double whammy — so much stigma and shame, everything I had worked for and that the Naval Academy had paid to educate me for. So I spoke with the chaplain and the brigade medical officer. “We’re not going to abandon you,” they said. But really no one had my back. It was presented as very cut-and-dry with no possibility to get a waiver, no process. One of the commandants had prepared talking points for me and had scrawled “not a death sentence” on a Post-It note.
I only told my roommate, my best friend, my company officer, and my family. I graduated, but everyone but me had a folder with their diploma on one side and their commissioning papers on the other. That was tough. By that point, many people knew I wasn’t commissioning. I would simply say that I had a rare blood condition. But many people knew I was gay, so they probably put two and two together. I had so much shame. I didn’t get my mom to switch out my midshipman shoulder boards [insignia] for officer ones, and I didn’t get my first salute from an underclassman.
After Deese got over the shock of his predicament, he reached out to OutServe-SLDN, a network of LGBTQ military personnel and one of the world’s largest LGBTQ employee resource groups. As it turns out, OutServe was already working on a lawsuit — in conjunction with Lambda Legal — by another HIV-positive academy graduate.
And their case defending men and women discharged for HIV isn’t the only one gunning for the U.S. military ban. Hornet previously reported on the case of Nick Harrison, an openly gay, poz veteran of the D.C. Army National Guard, who’s also suing the U.S. Department of Defense over the military’s discrimination. He claims he was denied advancement in the military because of his HIV status.
Harrison’s lawsuit deftly lays out all the reasons why the U.S. military’s policy of men discharged for HIV is inconsistent, outdated and discriminatory on its face.
For starters, HIV-positive men who are quickly diagnosed and on medication have lifespans basically identical to those who are HIV-negative. And the military has no qualms enlisting soldiers with other comparable chronic-yet-manageable conditions. Men discharged for HIV also waste taxpayer money, as all their hands-on training didn’t come for free.
“These oppressive restrictions are based on antiquated science that reinforces stigma and denies perfectly qualified service members the full ability to serve their country,” says Scott Schoettes, Harrison’s legal counsel and HIV Project Director at Lambda Legal “Recruitment, retention, deployment and commissioning should be based on a candidate’s qualifications to serve, not unfounded fears about HIV.”