US military eases restrictions on HIV-positive service members

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon will no longer automatically bar HIV-positive people from joining the U.S. military as officers or deploying overseas.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin released a memo this week updating HIV policies for the military “in light of significant advances in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention” of the virus.

The new policy states that people who are HIV-positive, asymptomatic and have a confirmed undetectable viral load will no longer face restrictions. Additionally, they cannot be fired or separated from military service just because they are HIV-positive, the memo says.

The policy changes follow a recent federal court decision that ruled the Department of Defense’s policies were illegal. The Biden administration has already made the decision not to appeal those decisions and move forward with the changes, according to a defense official.

Service members are tested at least every two years and before and after deployments, according to a defense official. There are approximately 1,010 HIV-positive active duty members in the military, according to the Department’s latest data as of June 2021. Now, HIV-positive personnel “will be referred for appropriate treatment and medical evaluation for fitness for continued service” , according to Austin’s memo.

The MoD changes have been applauded by major advocacy groups. The changes “reflect the reality that HIV is a chronic, treatable disease and poses no risk to the health or safety of others, even in combat situations. It follows a groundbreaking federal court ruling in April that directed the DoD — the world’s largest employer — to stop enforcing this discriminatory policy,” said Lambda Legal, which works for the full legal and civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and of all people living with HIV.

“The light at the end of the tunnel shines a little brighter today for people living with HIV who want to serve in the United States Armed Forces,” said Kevin Jennings, CEO of Lambda Legal. “We are pleased that the Biden administration has made clear that it will no longer defend these discriminatory policies in our courts and that the DoD has made long overdue changes to regulations affecting service members living with HIV. there is still work to be done for all people living with HIV who wish to serve, this marks a significant step forward.”

The policy change is another positive step for the LGBTQIA+ community in the US military under the Biden administration. One of President Biden’s first moves in power was to lift the ban on transgender people serving in the military when he took office, and the Department of Veterans Affairs decided to make confirmatory surgery sex accessible to transgender people through Veterans Affairs Health Care coverage in June 2021.

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