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The barbershop is a sacred social space. HIV discrimination destroys such safe spaces.

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GOOD SCIENCE, BAD STIGMA

Discrimination against people living with HIV persists despite advances that make HIV easy to treat and easy to prevent. Lambda Legal takes on two key cases.

Nikko Briteramos was featured in the last issue of Impact. He contacted Lambda Legal last fall after he was turned away from an L.A. barbershop, King of Kuts, because a barber there identified him as HIV-positive to the proprietor, who then refused to buzz his hair. The media had made Briteramos’ HIV status public in 2002 after it emerged that he had not disclosed his newly diagnosed status to a another college student before having sex.

“I want people to understand that this was discrimination and that you can’t get HIV from giving someone a haircut,” Briteramos, 34, an aspiring personal trainer, told Impact.

And now he’s following through: In July, Lambda Legal filed a complaint on his behalf in U.S. District Court against the owner of King of Kuts. “The facts of this case, as well as the legal claims, are pretty straightforward: the owner of King of Kuts refused to cut Nikko’s hair because he is living with HIV, in clear violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act as well as the California Unruh Civil Rights Act,” said Lambda Legal counsel and HIV Project director Scott Schoettes.

In addition to damages for Briteramos, the litigation seeks a public apology from the shop owner and asks him “to stand next to us as we educate about these issues,” says Schoettes.

That’s not all: In conjunction with the suit, Lambda Legal has joined forces with the Black AIDS Institute to produce an educational video and send Briteramos on a “Cut the Stigma” tour of historically black colleges and universities to help get out the word that HIV today is not only easily treatable but also untransmittable when people living with HIV are on treatment or when HIV-negative people take the daily preventive pill Truvada, also known as PrEP. The campaign hopes to reduce HIV stigma and discrimination in majority black settings such as the barbershop where Briteramos was turned away.

“It was important for us to get involved in Nikko’s case because there’s no way to end the AIDS epidemic if we’re not fighting bigotry, discrimination and bias,” says Phill Wilson, BAI’s founder and CEO. “In addition, as a black organization, we have to be ever vigilant in confronting injustice. It is a part of our survival.”

He added: “We are well aware that HIV discrimination does not only occur in the black community. But Nikko’s experience highlights how black people living with HIV are often confronted with discrimination connected to stigma and misinformation in public places of importance within our community. The barbershop is a sacred social space, where black Americans debate social, cultural and political ideas. HIV discrimination destroys such safe spaces.”

Briteramos says that the incident was especially hurtful because he had previously patronized King of Kuts several times. “My experience there was not the first I have had with HIV discrimination,” he says. “I am speaking out because I would like it to be my last.”

Watch #CutTheStigma: Nikko’s Story” on Lambda Legal’s Youtube channel.

National Guardsman Nick Harrison and Lambda Legal are fighting outdated policies in the military.

ANOTHER BAD MILITARY BAN

Lambda Legal and National Guardsman Nick Harrison, who is living with HIV, are taking the military to court over its policy of generally not letting people with HIV serve overseas or as officers, thus curtailing their career advancement, as we reported in the previous issue of Impact.

Neither the Civil Rights Act nor the Americans with Disabilities Act apply to the military, so Lambda Legal will argue the case as a constitutional equalprotection challenge. “Service members with HIV are currently able to take on any role and be deployed anywhere,” says Schoettes. “The military is way behind the science.”

To be clear, says Schoettes, these are longstanding policies against the military’s approximately 1,200 service members living with HIV. But in a new wrinkle, in February the Department of Defense issued a policy saying that if service members of any sort were non-deployable for 12 consecutive months, the military was required to discharge them.

“They say this is to make the force more militarily ready and lethal,” says Schoettes. “But there are lots of non-deployable people in the military doing important jobs. You don’t need everyone to deploy.”

In court this September, Lambda Legal, which has already heard from service members living with HIV who have been discharged under the new policy, will not directly challenge this policy shift. Instead, the focus will be on the older policy that makes service members with HIV undeployable. “That would protect them from the new policy,” says Schoettes. “We’re asking the court to hold the status quo, because we need to keep people living with HIV in the military and doing their jobs until we can fix these outdated policies. There’s no job today that they can’t do and no reason why they can’t be serving anywhere in the world.” LL

COURT FIGHT

From the Supreme Court down, Lambda Legal is working to stop Trump from stacking federal courts with right-wing judges in lifetime jobs.

Judicially speaking, these are not good times. The Trump administration is moving ahead with uncharacteristic efficiency to fill the federal courts with right-wing judges, thus far having successfully appointed more judges to the U.S. Court of Appeals than Barack Obama and George W. Bush combined at the same point in their presidencies.

By mid-July, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center, President Donald Trump had appointed 22 appeals court judges, compared to nine each for Obama and Bush. Overall, Trump has appointed 43 judges, including one Supreme Court justice. Dozens more nominees are waiting for Senate consideration.

Still, Lambda Legal, in conjunction with other LGBTQ and civil rights groups, has had some success in pushing back on Trump’s picks.

In mid-July, the White House withdrew its nomination of Ryan Bounds for the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit because Republicans could not muster enough votes after Lambda Legal and other groups highlighted articles Bounds wrote as a Stanford undergraduate ridiculing multiculturalism and groups devoted to racial and LGBTQ concerns.

“Bounds started crying during his hearing about going to a bar with gay friends and finding out later they had been bashed,” says Sasha Buchert, Lambda Legal staff attorney. “But he doesn’t make the connection between his statements in college and violence against LGBTQ and other vulnerable people.”

As Buchert sees it, the current judicial scorecard is “Bounds down, one to go.” She is referring to Trump’s nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

She notes that the anti-LGBT Family Research Council has advocated strongly for Kavanaugh’s previous judicial nominations. “I can promise that if they’re supporting him, they clearly believe he will be hostile toward LGBT protections,” she says. “He has expressed deep skepticism about fundamental rights within the Constitution that have led to decisions like Lawrence v. Texas,” the Lambda Legal victory that decriminalized LGBT lives when it struck down sodomy laws nationwide.

“WE CAN’T AFFORD 40 MORE YEARS OF TRUMP VALUES ON THE BENCH. THAT WILL TURN OUR MARRIAGES INTO ‘SKIM MILK MARRIAGES,’ UPHOLD SO-CALLED RELIGIOUS FREEDOM AGAINST LGBT RIGHTS AND PROBABLY SUPPORT THE BAN ON TRANSGENDER PEOPLE IN THE MILITARY.”
—  Sasha Buchert, Lambda Legal staff attorney

And on abortion, she notes, Kavanaugh “agrees with his mentor, former U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who dissented in Roe v. Wade,” the 1973 decision that legalized abortion.

There are yet more reasons to fear Kavanaugh, Buchert says. “He’s clearly come down on the side of an imperial presidency,” she says. “He believes the president does not need to follow the law if he thinks the law is unconstitutional and says the president should be able to fire a special counsel if he feels the special counsel is out to get him. If ever there were a time when we need someone to stand up to Trump, it’s now.”

As of press time, Kavanaugh’s Senate hearings have been scheduled for the week of September 4. “It’s essential,” Buchert says, “that everyone call their senators, especially if you’re represented by a moderate Republican or Democrat whose vote is uncertain.” Potentially persuadable senators include Republicans Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Rob Portman of Ohio, and Democrats Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana.

“Tell them to please oppose this nomination because there’s too much at stake,” says Buchert. “We can’t afford 40 more years of Trump values on the bench. That will turn our marriages into ‘skim milk marriages,’ uphold so-called religious freedom against LGBT rights and probably support the ban on transgender people in the military.”

TRANS MILITARY JUSTICE

So far, so good on blocking Trump’s ban on transgender service members.

Lambda Legal and other groups keep notching victories in the effort to fight the proposed ban on transgender service members, a policy President Donald Trump launched with a trio of surprise tweets the summer of 2017. So far, every federal court that has heard cases brought by Lambda Legal and others (including the ACLU, GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders, known as GLAD, and National Center for Lesbian Rights), has ruled against moving forward with the ban.

The latest setback for the government came in July, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said no to the government’s request to stay an earlier injunction stopping the ban. (That is, the court said no to an effort to allow the ban to be implemented while the appeal proceeds.) The larger issues raised by the government's appeal are still pending in the Ninth Circuit. As of press time, a hearing in the appeal had been scheduled for October 10.

“THERE’S A LOT OF MOMENTUM ON OUR SIDE— AND WE’RE GOING TO NEED IT BECAUSE OF THE POSSIBLY CHANGING COMPOSITION OF THE SUPREME COURT.”
—  Peter Renn, Lambda Legal senior attorney

“At every turn, Lambda and other groups have fought the government’s attempts to implement this discriminatory policy,” says Lambda Legal Senior Attorney Peter Renn. “So far, the government has not been able to persuade a single federal judge in the country that the government should be allowed to implement this. So there’s a lot of momentum on our side—and and we need it with the changing composition of the Supreme Court,” with the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Among the four cases filed against the ban, Lambda Legal’s is Karnoski v. Trump, which includes plaintiff Ryan Karnoski, a transgender Seattle social worker who wants to join the military and was on this magazine’s Winter 2018 cover.

This summer, The New York Times reported that, despite several injunctions blocking the ban, it appeared that few transgender people who had applied for the military had been accepted. Says Renn: “There’s an injunction in place and the government can't just flout it.”

He also notes that the injunction exists because federal judges ruled against the administration. “This is an example of why these federal bench seats are so crucial,” he says—and why Lambda Legal and other groups are fighting so hard against Trump’s right-wing court nominees.