Historic court victory against Trump could help fight HIV stigma everywhere

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In a recent op-ed for The Advocate, attorney and HIV Project Director at Lambda Legal Scott Schoettes celebrated a January victory in which in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld a decision that people living with HIV can safely serve in the U.S. Air Force.

Schoettes wrote of the significance of this victory and his hopes that it will serve as a reminder for employers around the country to stop stigmatizing people living with HIV.

Related: Mike Pence responds to critics of his HIV outbreak mismanagement: ‘I’m proud of the work.’

“For the first time, a federal appellate court has examined the state of HIV medicine and recognized that people living with HIV can safely perform any job in the world, including the job of U.S. servicemember,” he said.

The case involved two anonymous Air Force members, Richard Roe and Victor Voe. Schoettes said their decision to use pseudonyms alone is “a testament to the severity of the ongoing stigma related to HIV.”

The lawsuit came about after the Trump administration began discharging airmen based on their HIV-positive status, despite medical developments that have made it perfectly safe for people with HIV to serve.

Both Roe and Voe’s deployments were cut short when they were diagnosed with HIV, in conjunction with Department of Defense policies that have been in place since the 1980s and state service members with HIV cannot enlist, deploy, or become officers.

The Fourth Circuit upheld a preliminary injunction from a lower court condemning the Trump Administration’s actions and allowing those with HIV to continue serving.

Representing Roe and Voe was Lambda Legal, Winston & Strawn, and the Modern Military Associated of America.

The opinion from the Fourth Circuit stated that the government’s reasoning behind discharging the airmen is “at odds with modern science” and declared that those serving are taking daily medication and “cannot transmit the virus through normal daily activities.”

“Serving in the U.S. military has been the greatest honor of my life and I’m thrilled to see this court affirmed the lower court ruling in our favor,” Voe said in a statement to Courthouse News when the ruling was made. “No one should be discharged or discriminated against because of HIV when it does not interfere whatsoever with our capacity to serve.”

Schoette’s hopes this decision will have ripple affects for people around the country living with HIV.

“The clear statements of this federal appellate court in Virginia — about the relative ease of treatment, the capabilities of people living with HIV, the low risk of occupational transmission in the absence of treatment, and the extremely low or non-existent risk in even the most extreme circumstances if a person is in treatment — should put employers all across the country on notice that discrimination against people living with HIV is never justified,” he wrote.

He also hopes this decision will be instrumental in the fight to end HIV altogether, as one of the biggest reasons people don’t get tested is the stigma being HIV-positive carries with it.

“Even with the amazing breakthroughs in HIV prevention and treatment,” he wrote, “unless the government stops perpetuating such stigma and discrimination, we don’t stand any real chance of ending the HIV epidemic in the United States.”

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