Department of Defense Updates Policy on HIV+ Service Members

by Delphine Luneau

Updated Guidance Still Requires Improvement As It Prevents HIV-Positive People From Enlisting in Military

WASHINGTON — The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) — the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) civil rights organization — hailed the decision of the Department of Defense this week to abandon an outdated and discriminatory policy from the 1980s that called for service members to be discharged, deployed or prevented from advancing merely because they were HIV-positive, even if they had an undetectable viral load. The new guidance follows an April ruling by a federal judge striking down the former policy as a result of a pair of lawsuits brought by Lambda Legal on behalf of three service members.

People who live with HIV who adhere to antiretroviral therapy and reach an undetectable viral load cannot transmit the virus to their sexual partners – even when no condom is used. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are more than 1.2 million people in the U.S. living with HIV, and approximately 40,000 new diagnoses each year.

“The Department of Defense and Secretary Austin deserve credit for making the right choice – service members with HIV should be able to remain in the military and enjoy every opportunity for deployment or advancement as any other service member,” said David Stacy, HRC’s Government Affairs Director. “Research has shown for years now that antiretroviral therapy is highly effective in shrinking the risk of HIV transmission to essentially zero. To maintain a discriminatory policy against service members living with HIV without the backing of medical evidence was unsustainable, and we’re glad to see our military leaders recognize that. And we’ll continue to push for the same policy to be applied to those who want to enlist – this week’s announcement was a good first step, but as long as some people are still being discriminated against for no good reason, there’s still work to be done.”

Reversing the former policy was a priority listed in HRC’s Blueprint For Positive Change, a document with 85 policy recommendations for the then-incoming Biden-Harris administration released in November 2020. In 2021, HRC representatives communicated the need for a policy revision directly with senior Defense Department officials, and HRC led a sign-on letter urging military officials not to appeal the court ruling against the former policy.

HIV continues to disproportionately affect members of the LGBTQ+ community, especially LGBTQ+ communities of color, particularly cisgender Black and Brown gay and bisexual men, transgender women and Black women. As a result, needlessly discriminatory military policies relating to HIV status tend to have an outsized impact on LGBTQ+ service members.

The “My Body, My Health” campaign seeks to fight the stigma faced by the hundreds of thousands of people with HIV in the U.S. and millions more worldwide who are suffering with the belief that they’re infectious. They are suffering from social rejection, isolation, depression, suicide, intimate partner violence, prosecution and murder.

The Human Rights Campaign is America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. HRC envisions a world where LGBTQ+ people are embraced as full members of society at home, at work and in every community.

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