Trump’s ban on HIV-positive service members must stop, judge rules

Trump HIV Military Ban

The Trump Administration must stop discharge proceedings against HIV-positive service members in the U.S. Air Force, a federal judge ruled today.
Image: Rob Sheridan.

The Trump Administration must stop discharge proceedings against HIV-positive service members in the U.S. Air Force, a federal judge ruled today.

The two plaintiffs, airmen who filed pseudonymously, were given discharge orders in 2018 after being found “unfit for continued military service” despite compliance with medical treatment and physical fitness requirements, according to court documents.

Even though the service members received support from their medical providers and commanding officers, one of them was to be discharged within 10 days.


In granting the preliminary injunction, the judge ruled the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in preventing their discharge through the lawsuit and rejected the Trump Administration’s motion to dismiss the suit.

“This is a major victory in our fight to ensure everyone living with HIV can serve their country without discrimination,” Scott Schoettes, one of the attorneys and HIV Project Director at Lambda Legal, said in a statement.

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“These decisions should be based on science, not stigma, as today’s ruling from the bench demonstrates,” Schoettes said. “Despite President Trump’s promise to improve the lives of people living with HIV at the State of the Union this month, his administration continues to defend these policies and others discriminating against people most impacted by HIV. Lambda Legal will keep fighting until these brave and qualified Airmen can serve without limitations.”

It’s unclear if the Trump Administration will appeal the ruling.


Federal Judge Leonie Brinkema, with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia,  issued the ruling from the bench after hearing oral argument today on both Lambda Legal and OutServe-SLDN’s motion for preliminary injunction and the administration’s motion to dismiss.

The order was issued in the case of Roe and Voe v. Shanahan, filed last year by Lambda Legal and OutServe-SLDN, with partner law firm Winston & Strawn.


“We are thrilled that Judge Brinkema recognized…the military’s policies were harming our members who are living and serving with HIV,” Peter Perkowski, OutServe-SLDN’s legal and policy director, said in the same statement.

“The military’s decisions (also) were based on outdated medical science and are categorically denying people living with HIV the same opportunities as their fellow service members,” Perkowski said. We look forward to a final decision in the case.”


Along with Harrison v. Shanahan and Deese and Doe v. Shanahan, this is the third lawsuit that Lambda Legal and OutServe-SLDN have brought to challenge military policies that discriminate against people living with HIV.

The Roe and lawsuit challenges the Pentagon’s discriminatory policies of preventing service members living with HIV from deploying outside the United States without a waiver. For years, these policies — which are not based on science — have restricted the opportunities of service members living with HIV.


The Trump Administration and the Pentagon are using these same deployment restrictions to justify discharging HIV positive service members. The “Deploy or Get Out” policy unveiled by the Trump Administration in February 2018 directs the Defense Department to identify service members who cannot be deployed to military posts outside of the United States for more than 12 consecutive months and to separate them from military service.

Other branches have said they will not be discharging HIV-positive service members based on this new policy, but it isn’t clear how the Air Force is implementing it.


About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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