In Spring 2014, Kevin Deese, now 26, was about to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, when officials there told him that routine blood testing had turned up abnormal numbers -- and that a follow-up HIV test came up positive. In keeping with a longstanding U.S. military policy that bans HIV-positive people from enlisting and enlisted servicemembers who test positive from deploying overseas -- squelching their chances at military promotion -- Deese was told that he could graduate but not be commissioned into the Navy. After getting over the shock, Deese reached out to the LGBT military advocacy and legal group OutServe-SLDN and joined the lawsuit of another anonymous HIV-positive military academy graduate to fight the policy in court. Lambda Legal is also involved in the suit.
In the age of easy, effective HIV treatment, the military policy is outdated and discriminatory, says Lambda's HIV project director Scott Schoettes. "People with HIV today can deploy," he says. It is not the only case challenging the military's HIV policy; in September, a federal court pushed forward a similar case, brought by Lambda on behalf of Sergeant Nick Harrison, who was denied military advancement because of his HIV status.
The Body talked with Deese, who is now in graduate school in St. Paul, Minnesota, about how his ordeal unfolded and why he's determined to fight for his rightful place in the military.
Tim Murphy: How did you set your sights on the military in the first place?
Kevin Deese: It goes way back to my first visit to Annapolis when my brother was there, when I was nine. I saw the change that my brother had undergone. He stood taller and was part of something greater than himself. That's what really made me start thinking about serving. So I did great in high school. My senior year, I was vice president of the student body, president of National Honor Society, school mascot, and heavily involved in chorus and drama. So I went into the Naval Academy right after. The experience was awesome. If I could go back and do it again, I would in a heartbeat. There was so much camaraderie. My freshman year, I came out as gay to myself right around when they were ending "don't ask, don't tell" and allowing gays in the military. The following year I came out to a few closer friends. If anyone ever asked, I was honest with them. But I certainly wasn't posting on Facebook and did not join the LGBTQ and allies group that started at the school.
TM: What was your military goal?
KD: I was going to be a submarine officer. I applied for that early in my junior year and was accepted. I was really attracted to the mission. Submarines defend surface ships from below and go on top-secret missions all over the world. I wanted to be where the action was. Subs also play a role in strategic nuclear deterrence.
TM: So then what happened?
KD: So April Fool's Day 2014, I'm eating lunch in the dining hall with my best friend, and a lieutenant I didn't know comes over and ushers me to the commandant's office, which is like the dean of students. "It's not a good reason that you're here," the commandant says, and I start to panic. What did I do? Was I in trouble? I had no idea why. Then he tells me that I tested positive for HIV and my heart just dropped. It was not something I thought I had been at risk for. Then he says that I will not be commissioning as an officer along with my classmates. It was a double whammy -- so much stigma and shame, everything I had worked for and that the Naval Academy had paid to educate me for. So I spoke with the chaplain and the brigade medical officer. "We're not going to abandon you," they said. But really no one had my back. It was presented as very cut-and-dry with no possibility to get a waiver, no process. One of the commandants had prepared talking points for me and had scrawled "not a death sentence" on a Post-It note.
I only told my roommate, my best friend, my company officer, and my family. I graduated, but everyone but me had a folder with their diploma on one side and their commissioning papers on the other. That was tough. By that point, many people knew I wasn't commissioning. I would simply say that I had a rare blood condition. But many people knew I was gay, so they probably put two and two together. I had so much shame. I didn't get my mom to switch out my midshipman shoulder boards [insignia] for officer ones, and I didn't get my first salute from an underclassman.
TM: So then what happened?
KD: So I was in limbo as a midshipman, receiving pay for almost three years after I graduated. I got a job as an area manager at Amazon in Charleston, South Carolina, for a year, then worked for a small consulting firm. Periodically I'd check in on my status with the Navy; I was technically still in the military but not commissioned, a bit like being on terminal leave. I was waiting for the bureaucratic process to play out. No one was assigned to my case. It was like pulling teeth to get any sort of information. Then I learned that my case was going back and forth between legal and medical, with each side saying it was the other's to handle. I started to ask around, and I got in contact with the Naval Academy superintendent, a JAG [Judge Advocate General] officer, who started working on pursuing a waiver for me. I got support statements from my company officer and senior enlisted leader, and a doctor at Walter Reed who wrote a letter saying that there was no medical reason why I shouldn't be able to do any job in the Navy. All of that went to my superintendent, who was immediately in favor of me obtaining a waiver. Then it went to the Pentagon, where it sat a few months.
But then I was finally sent a letter in May 2017 saying that my request had been denied and that I was honorably discharged. So I came to Minnesota to better myself through graduate education. I also got involved in advocacy for people with HIV through the local group JustUs Health. But I never got over not commissioning. I'd been in contact with OutServe, who told me that someone in my same position who'd graduated from the Air Force academy but had not been able to commission was filing a suit anonymously. Prior, I had not been ready to be public. But this past April, I came out as HIV positive on Facebook. I was becoming an HIV advocate and felt I could be more effective if I were able to say, "Me too." So I ended up joining onto the anonymous suit as a named plaintiff.
TM: What's life been like since?
KD: Not a whole lot has changed. I wouldn't say I'm depressed. I've tried to control what I can. I'm just glad that I'm not giving up -- not just for me but for anyone living with HIV, whether they have a desire to serve in the military or not. It's important that there are people with HIV doing whatever the hell they want to do, including serving their country in the military. People living with HIV are three times more likely to be unemployed than in the general population, according to stats I've seen. But most people living with HIV are able to work full-time. I hope that this can reset expectations of what people with HIV can do.
TM: After all you've been through, you still want to be in the military?
KD: Yes. The whole point of this case is for me to commission and serve so I can repay my debt to the country for having given me this world-class education and training. I'm still fighting to uphold my end of the bargain.
TM: What has coming out with your HIV status been like?
KD: I've received nothing but support from family and friends. Lots of people have reached out and told me that it meant a lot to them because they're living with HIV or someone close to them is, and they know how devastating the stigma can be, so it makes a big difference to see someone being open. Deciding to come out was my saying that I don't want to feel like a victim but want to be more in control of my own narrative and life.