HIV: a call for solidarity with the transgender community

With the prevalence of HIV 50 times higher than that of the general population, societal acceptance and family support are crucial to the emotional wellbeing and health outcomes of LGBT people. Cecila Chung tells her own story and calls for transgender sisterhood at the AIDS 2014 Conference

Cecilia Chung
19 July 2014

For the first time the transgender community is hosting a Transgender Networking Zone in the Global Village at the International AIDS Conference opening this weekend in Melbourne. Titled “Trans People Step Forward!”, the zone is coordinated by a consortium of organizations including the Center of Excellence for Transgender Health, the Global Network of People Living with HIV, RED Trans and local transgender advocates, to name just a few. The first of the four day programme is dedicated to trans people living with HIV with two of the three panels focusing on trans women living with HIV: “Voices from the Global South: Life of trans women living with HIV”, “Intersection of Violence and HIV: Stories of Resilience” and “The Cultral Context of Stigma, Gender, Sex and HIV”.

It feels like two lifetimes ago when I found myself living on the margins and at the brink of despair. I had just come out as trans to my parents who, through no fault of their own, could not accept the news and effectively turned their back on me.  Being a college graduate did not prepare me for all the rejections, discriminations and traumas that life had instore for me. The immediate three years after I embraced my true self are not the type of experiences that I would wish on my worst enemy. There is no adjective that can adequately describe the agonizing path on which I embarked: I went from a fresh-out-of-college six-figure income earner in an investment company to unemployed due to my own internalized stigma and the lack of employment discrimination protections in California at that time, from a renter to the edge of homelessness, from being someone with a middle-class upbringing to being someone who relied on the street economy to survive, constantly exposed to the power dynamics that fuel stigma, ignorance and violence. In a span of thirty six months, I was introduced to police abuse, and physical and sexual violence; none of which was a singular episode.

Once, when I was being cited for jaywalking by two uniformed officers.. I tried to explain that I was not planning on crossing on the red light, but the officers determined that I was “obstructing justice” and took me into custody, handcuffed, for seven hours. It was their way to teach me not to argue. They eventually released me at 4 o’clock in the morning without charging me for breaking any law.

Sadly, my story is not unique to trans women, sex workers, women of colour or low-income women. The laws that are intended to protect us, have routinely become weapons against us.  For example, a trans woman of colour was recently found guilty of “manifesting prostitution” in Phoenix, Arizona.

The profiling by police, often referred to as “Walking While Trans”, is a fairly common phenomenon around the globe. There are reports of police abuse from Greece, Kuwait, Cameroon and Malaysia just to name a few.

Despite some gains in trans rights in high-income countries, violence against trans women has not been reduced.  According to the Trans* Violence Tracking Portal, we make up 1% to 1.5% of the world’s population, but we are 400 times more likely to be assaulted or murdered than the rest of the population.

To whom can we turn for help if we cannot trust those who are supposed to protect us?

Some of the voilence trans women face has made them more vulnerable to HIV, as more evidence points to violence as a driver of HIV.  For example, trans female sex workers are more likely to be economically disenfranchised; they often face structural and institutional violence such as police harassment and criminalization as well as sexual and phycial violence perpetrated by either their clients, who often demand unsafe sex, or their partners.

The mid-1990s was a time of reconciliation for me. It was also redemption and forgiveness. Since I found out I was HIV positive in 1993, I gave up hope and the will to live. Despite my grim diagnosis at a time when effective treatment was unavailable, I survived. In 1995, after being brutally attacked by two men, my family began to come back into my life. By 1996, protease inhibitors (HIV medication) became widely used, and my death sentence was commuted to a lifetime of pills and symptom management. This would not have been possible had I not lived in one of the world’s most progressive cities - San Francisco - where trans-sensitive care is possible. Most importantly, having my family back in my life and the opportunity to work again gave me the hope and the will I needed to thrive.

Societal acceptance and family support are both crucial to the emotional wellbeing, the quality of life and health outcomes of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people. With our worldwide burden of HIV prevalence 50 times higher than that of the general population, and the statistics of stigma, discrimination and violence stacked against trans women, we must glimpse beyond the pitch-dark cloud for the silver lining. Of course, improving providers’ attitudes, and eradicating stigma and discrimination remain top priorities. As the Global Update on HIV Treatment by WHO continues to confirm the disparity and inequity in ARV access by key affected populations, efforts to mobilize the community at a grassroots level to demand global action is much needed. But it cannot happen without building solidarity among trans women worldwide.

As the movement of women with HIV is becoming more inclusive of trans women’s issues, trans women will need to become more inclusive of one another. 

Most trans women, especially trans women of colour, share an unspoken bond – the courage to live openly as our authentic selves despite the odds of violence, discrimination and rejection. The resilience and wisdom of those of us who survived and thrived against all odds gives us much to share with other trans sisters. “Each One Teach One”, as the African proverbial phrase goes, from the global north to the global south and from the west to the east, community empowerment requires trans women of all diversity to tell our stories, to mentor one another and to nuture the bonds of sisterhood. Perhaps it will take years for some of us to reconcile with our families, but we should not stop at building our own chosen family and to remind one another that our lives, our bodies and our stories matter. With the absence of a cure for AIDS, the only medicine that is more powerful than any anti-retro viral therapy is hope and the unconditional support that we can offer one another.

There is no better time to unite and amplify our voices than now. I invite you to join me in the Transgender Networking Zone to share stories and to brainstorm on strategies to eliminate discrimination, to address inequities, to end stigma and violence, and to increase access to health services.

Last but not least, join me to celebrate our resilience.

This article is part of 50.50's long running series on AIDS Gender and Human Rights exploring the ways in which global policies ignore the gender dimensions of the pandemic, and the impact this has on women's human rights. We are publishing daily during the 2014 World AIDS Conference in Melbourne July 20-25.

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