Lambda Legal challenging military’s policy preventing people with HIV from enlisting

On Thursday, Nov. 10, Lambda Legal filed legal challenges to the U.S. Military policy that prevents people living with HIV from enlisting in the U.S. Armed Forces.

On Thursday, Nov. 10, Lambda Legal filed legal challenges to the U.S. Military policy that prevents people living with HIV from enlisting in the U.S. Armed Forces.

The legal advocacy group said in a statement that the police, which requires that applicants for appointment and enlistmentbe screened for HIV and denied entry if they test positive, is discriminatory.

Lambda Legal and co-counsel Winston & Strawn LLP, Perkowski Legal, PC, and Scott A. Schoettes, Esq. filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia on behalf of three individual plaintiffs who have been denied enlistment based on their HIV status. Minority Veterans of America (MVA) is also a plaintiff. MVA advances the interests of its civilian members who are living with HIV and wish to serve in the military.

“The existing policy is out of step with science and unlawfully excludes people living with HIV from performing as members of the U.S. military. A positive HIV status alone has no effect on a person’s ability to safely serve,” said Kara Ingelhart, senior attorney at Lambda Legal. “Because HIV disproportionately impacts LGBTQ+ people and people of color, this discriminatory policy is not only outdated, but is also a serious equity issue that has a significant impact on communities who already face countless systemic barriers to accessing full life in America. Striking this policy would help expand opportunities for over 1.2 million people in the U.S. living with HIV — 42% of which are Black and 21.7% are Latinx.”

“For years, the military has found it difficult to meet the recruitment and end-strength goals for an all-volunteer force. Given this reality, it is non-sensical for the nation’s largest employer to turn away healthy, fit, and fully capable recruits just because they have HIV,” said co-counsel Peter Perkowski, who is also the legal and policy director of MVA. “This policy undermines efforts to build and maintain a strong, vibrant military, and there’s no scientific support for it. We will keep fighting until it ends.”

“I served honorably and ably as a member of the Georgia National Guard. It’s frustrating that although I am healthy and fit for service, an outdated policy keeps me from continuing my family’s legacy of proud service to our country,” said plaintiff Isaiah Wilkins.

Wilkins is a 23-year-old gay Black cisgender gay man living with HIV in Georgia. His mother is a military veteran, and he’s wanted to serve for as long as he can remember. But after serving in the National Guard, enrolling at the Georgia Military college, and securing a position at the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School at West Point, he was ultimately denied pursuit of his military career after a medical examination revealed his HIV status.

The other plaintiffs are Carol Coe, a 32-year-old Latina transgender lesbian woman living with HIV in Washington, D.C. with her wife, and Natalie Noe is a 32-year-old, cisgender straight woman of Indigenous Australian descent living with HIV in California.

The filing comes after Lambda Legal celebrated the Biden administration’s announcement in July 2022 that it will no longer defend discriminatory restrictions that prevented servicemembers living with HIV from deploying and commissioning as officers. Instead of appealing the decision of the district court declaring these restrictions unconstitutional, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III issued a memorandum outlining changes to the relevant regulations, which stated that individuals who have been identified as HIV-positive, are asymptomatic, and who have a clinically confirmed undetectable viral load will have no restrictions applied to their deployability or to their ability to commission while a servicemembers on the basis of their HIV-positive status.

“Because this litigation team definitively established that servicemembers living with HIV can safely deploy, no valid reason remains to deny civilians living with HIV the opportunity to join the military,” said Scott Schoettes, former Lambda Legal Counsel now in private practice. “As before, we look forward to dismantling any justifications the military attempts to offer for its discriminatory policy.”

Read more about Roe & Voe v. Austin here:

Read more about Harrison v. Austin here:

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