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Panel faces legal challenges for trans and HIV-positive service members
by Matt Simonette
2019-12-03

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U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley ( D-5 ) was joined by legal experts at the Pritzker Military Museum the afternoon of Dec. 2 for a discussion of the ongoing challenges facing U.S. military personnel who are transgender and/or HIV positive.

Quigley was joined by three attorneys from the national advocacy organization Lambda Legal, as well as Nick Harrison, a litigant challenging the Trump administration's "deploy or get out," policy, which has been a tacit means to separate HIV-positive personnel from the military. Vanessa Sheridan, Center on Halsted's director of gender equity and inclusion, moderated the panel.

In his opening remarks, Quigley decried President Donald Trump's efforts to boot transgender service members from the military, adding, "We should be recognizing [their] contributions that allow us to enjoy the benefits of this country. … These are heroes."

In a 2017 Twitter posting, Trump reversed orders from the Obama administration that had allowed transgender personnel to openly serve. Those service members have had their careers in jeopardy ever since, as the president's orders were conceptualized by defense department officials and then challenged in myriad court cases.

Trump effectively "pulled the rug out from under trans folks," said Kara Inglehart, a Chicago-based Lambda Legal staff attorney.

Among the Trump administration's rationales were unit cohesion and the cost of medical care for transgender persons. But neither the Department of Justice nor military leaders have come forth with evidence supporting those rationales, noted Sasha Buchert, a Washington, D.C.-based Lambda Legal attorney.

Buchert, who is transgender and had to leave the Marine Corps because of the pre-Obama ban, noted that eventually removing trans persons from the service will cost the government dearly in terms of lost "money, time and effort" that they've put towards that personnel's training. She further noted that about 40 percent of transgender military personnel have been deployed to the Middle East.

Quigley noted that many of the arguments around unit cohesion were similarly cited as justification for the military's segregation. Inglehart then suggested that the administration was likely implementing the rules as precursors to eventual legal challenges of anti-discrimination rules in all U.S. workplaces.

The Trump administration announced in February 2018 that military personnel who could not be deployed overseas for more than 12 months would be similarly separated from their military service. That essentially bans HIV-positive personnel from service, since military rules—which in this area were formulated in the '80s—prohibit HIV-positive members from being deployed at all.

A wave of firings of HIV-positive military personnel followed the deployment rule in late 2018. Harrison, a National Guard member and attorney, is among litigants suing so that those HIV-personnel can be deployed, arguing that medical advancements are such that HIV—which can now usually be suppressed with a simple oral medication regimen—should be addressed the same as many other chronic conditions. Persons already living with HIV cannot enlist in the military.

Scott Schoettes, who is Lambda Legal's Chicago-based HIV project director, noted that the rules in place are in part based on longtime—and long disproven—fears about soldiers coming into contact with blood in combat. "There was never been transmission from that kind of 'wound-to-wound' contact, in the military or out of it," he said.

Many panelists emphasized a significant disconnect between actual experiences of persons who've been in the military and what most politicians and others who have never served think they know about it.

"John Wayne never actually saw combat," Quigley said.

Harrison indeed said that he has only experienced support from colleagues who know about his legal case, adding that most military personnel are likely "already there" in their acceptance of change.

"We care about the person who has our back," he added.


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