Kevin Deese wins HIV discrimination case vs. Defense Department

Kevin Deese Lawsuit Settlement HIV positive

Kevin Deese won his discrimination lawsuit against the Department of Defense, which rejected him from the military because he is HIV positive. Photo: Lambda Legal.

Two military members won their discrimination lawsuit after being denied promotions simply because they are HIV-positive.

Former U.S. Navy midshipman Kevin Deese and former U.S. Air Force cadet John Doe (a pseudonym) filed the lawsuit against the Department of Defense in 2018 when they were denied commissions after graduating from their respective service academies simply because they are living with HIV.

In the settlement, announced Monday by their attorneys at Lambda Legal, the two men will be commissioned as officers “in recognition of the status and military careers they qualified for and earned years ago,” according to a Lambda Legal press release.

“Joining my brave co-plaintiff in this case was, for me, about demonstrating the very leadership that inspired me to a military career. I follow the mantra of 2004 Naval Academy graduate Travis Manion — ‘If not me, then who?’,” Deese said in the release.

“Now, 10 years after my Naval Academy graduation, future midshipmen and cadets living with HIV will be able to commission with their classmates upon graduation,” Desse said, “And I could not be more proud to finally be commissioning.”

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The Defense Department announced policy changes in June 2022 that rescinded some of the military’s restrictions discriminating against service members living with HIV. That prevented what happened to Deese and Doe from impacting future military academy cadets who seroconvert while in the course of their college education.

Now, those who are asymptomatic with undetectable viral load “will have no restrictions applied to their deployment or to their ability to commission … solely on the basis of their HIV-positive status.”

Those changes followed a groundbreaking federal court ruling in April 2022 that ordered the Defense Department to stop enforcing those discriminatory policies. The ruling came in two cases — Harrison v. Austin and Roe v. Austin, combined for purposes of discovery and summary judgment. Lambda Legal served as co-counsel with Winston & Strawn LLP, Greenberg Traurig LLP, Scott Schoettes, and Peter Perkowski.

“We are gratified that our clients, who were denied officer commissions they had earned because of the U.S. military’s discriminatory policy of withholding career advancement opportunities from HIV-positive service members, will now be able to achieve their goals,” Kara Ingelhart, senior attorney at Lambda Legal, said in the statement. “Service members living with HIV, once affected by an outdated, discriminatory policy, no longer face discharge, bans on commissioning, or bans on deployment simply because they are living with HIV.”

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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