September 07, 2022

Gillibrand And Coons Lead Colleagues In Bicameral Push To Permit Individuals Living With HIV And HBV To Serve In The Military

Today, U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), chair of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, and Chris Coons (D-DE) led their Senate colleagues in a push to permit individuals living with well-managed human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and hepatitis B virus (HBV) to enlist and serve in the military. Given the advancements in medicine for both HIV and HBV, the risk of battlefield transmission is near zero and people living with HIV and HBV can manage their condition with as little as one pill a day and are able to lead very long and healthy lives. Just recently, multiple district court cases affirmed this notion by stating that the categorical bars to the deployment and commissioning of service members with HIV violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. The argument that these viruses make an individual less fit to serve is outdated, harmful, and discriminatory, and places unnecessary barriers on these individuals who wish to serve their country.

Gillibrand and Coons were joined by Senators Schatz (D-HI), Hirono (D-HI), Baldwin (D-WI), and Casey (D-PA). U.S. Representative Mike Quigley (IL-05), Vice-Chair of the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus, Representative Sara Jacobs (CA-53), and Representative Barbara Lee (CA-13) led 31 of their House colleagues in sending an identical letter to the Biden administration. 

“We are pleased to learn that DOJ will no longer defend the constitutionality of regulations barring the deployment and commissioning of service members with HIV who are currently serving in the U.S. military. We now ask that the Biden administration follows this conclusion and allows individuals living with HIV to enlist, to seek appointment, and to otherwise join the U.S. military,” said the senators. “For far too long, people living with HIV and HBV have faced harmful and discriminatory policies in our armed forces that create unnecessary barriers to serve. The current policy banning these individuals from enlisting or joining a commissioning program is outdated and without merit, and does not reflect the military’s commitment to equality, diversity, and the inclusion of all races, ethnicities, religions, and sexual orientations in service. Anyone who is qualified and has a desire to serve their country should be allowed to do so, and we remain optimistic the administration will heed this important call.”  

"As our nation entered into one of the most difficult military recruiting cycles in more than twenty years, it is even more critical now, to recruit and retain individuals who are capable and qualified to serve, including individuals living with HIV or chronic HBV. Medical technology has vastly improved in the past decades, making transmission rates almost zero and a person's viral load undetectable,” said Jennifer Dane, CEO of Modern Military Association of America. “Discriminating against these individuals is not simply unjust, but a threat to national security. The Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security must act now to remove these barriers to service."

"Scientific evidence shows that people living with hepatitis B do not pose a risk to others, and that hepatitis B does not impact the ability of military students and personnel to serve. By failing to align their current policies with recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Defense has created an inequitable environment where people living with hepatitis B and HIV are vulnerable to being discharged unnecessarily,” said Chari Cohen, DrPH, MPH, President of Hepatitis B Foundation. “We urge President Biden to take swift action to ensure that all who wish to serve in the military can do so unimpeded." 

“The current policy banning the military enlistment of individuals with well-managed Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Hepatitis B Virus (HBV) ignores the science in favor of stigma. It is a disservice to this country’s values and to those who would volunteer to protect them. We strongly urge the Biden Administration to allow all who want to serve their country, including individuals with well-managed HIV or HBV, to do so without facing unnecessary barriers,” said Human Rights Campaign Senior Vice President Policy and Political Affairs, JoDee Winterhof. “Due to advancements in modern medicine regarding HIV and HBV, individuals living with these viruses can and do lead long and full lives, often requiring just one pill a day to manage their condition. These advancements also mean that the risk of transmission is near zero and the research demonstrates that neither of these viruses makes an individual less able to serve – a fact recently recognized by our nation’s military leaders when they began allowing already-enlisted members with HIV to continue their service. We call on the Biden Administration to follow the science and to allow individuals with well-managed HIV and HBV to serve their country.”

“Lambda Legal has a long history of defending LGBTQ+ people and people living with HIV against discrimination in the military, including litigation challenging Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the ban on open transgender military service, and most recently, successfully challenging the discriminatory restrictions placed on servicemembers living with HIV. It is essential that the Department of Defense take the next step by formally ending discrimination in enlistment for people living with HIV or chronic HBV,” said Lambda Legal CEO Kevin Jennings. “There are people living with HIV/HBV who are ready, willing, and able to serve our country that are being harmed every day this ban remains in effect. We urge immediate action by Biden administration to remove this remaining discriminatory obstacle to commencing dedicated service defending our country.

For the full letter, please click here.