Personal Perspective: The Trials of Transition
When I became HIV-positive at 16, I hadn't ever seen any outreach or education about HIV for transgender people. I always said I would never get HIV -- I thought I was invincible. At that time I wasn't paying attention to what was going on in the world. We slept all day and ran the streets all night. No one was using condoms.
I've made it to the age of 37 because I have had my mother's support from day one. She helped me get out of the crazy lifestyle I was living. We have a connection and a bond that will never go away. She understands what I go through because she works in the medical field. She has always been there -- telling me to take my medicine, talk to my doctor, and take care of myself.
One of my partners gave me the virus. I didn't know he was HIV positive. I thought he was someone I could trust, but I found out that he knew he was positive and didn't tell me. There needs to be more education that can reach young people, information featuring trans women talking about their experiences, about growing up, and about staying safe.
I have been living in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn for twenty years, and it can be really hard. People are always trying to figure me out. I have tried to communicate with people in the neighborhood, and at least make some friends, but once they found out I was trans and positive, it was a whole different story. I was always either being used or threatened, and I had rocks and bottles thrown at me.
Now, people have gotten more used to me. I told them I am not going to move away because of my gender or my status. I always wanted to live there, so I am not going to leave. It is still really rough, though.
I spend so much time explaining myself to doctors and to the greater community. I feel like I shouldn't need to explain myself, either being trans or being positive. It's hard to be accepted and to find a doctor who will be open. I have to constantly build a relationship with people to get the services I need, because if I don't do it myself no one will do it for me.
When I told my doctor that I am transgender, he was shocked. He said to me, "You look like a woman, you act like a woman -- did you have surgeries?" He really didn't understand. The fact that I am a woman is not connected to whether or not I choose to change my body. I had to stop taking my hormones because they interfere with my HIV medications, but I am still a woman. It took some time and explaining, but he accepted me as I am, and now I feel comfortable with him.
There are so many challenges for trans women, especially if they have HIV. A lot of us don't have family. If a trans woman transitions at an early age, most of the time her family disowns her. There is a lack of education in the community because so many women don't have the support of their family anymore and have to go out in the world and be on the street or live with friends. Most of them are not in school and don't have jobs, but they still have to pay their bills. This means that working the street is often the only way to make ends meet.
It can be hard for trans women to get jobs because of discrimination. Some of them don't see it, but I do. When I'm in an interview, I get looks. They analyze me up and down -- they don't try to hide it. They're like, "You're trans," and I'm like, "Yeah," and they sneak a look! At my job now, they like that I am confident in who I am. They like that I am open and honest and talk to them about my HIV status, and I feel comfortable there.
For trans women, facing so many challenges can lead to neglecting their health. If they are doing sex work in the evening, they don't have time to go to the doctor in the morning. I walk through the Village at night and see so many young transgender women using drugs, doing sex work, and having unprotected sex. Some of these women are not really thinking about their health. It's about that dollar and keeping it moving. They're starting at the age of 12, and it's dangerous. I was there. I remember staying out all night, drinking, getting high. It was a party every night and it was scary.
In the community there is so little support. It's just so much competition. So many of the young women are into the Ball scene, and it has damaged a lot of these kids. It's no longer fun. It's all just competition. They end up wanting to beat each other up, kill each other, over nothing. The community will put you down, and that's really hard for your self-esteem if you don't have anyone in your corner.
It can be so hard to get the right kind of support. Disclosing being HIV positive to a partner is difficult. You don't know how they are going to react, and how they will deal with you being positive. Once you tell a partner you are positive, sometimes things can change in the relationship. I have gone through that with partners who damaged my self-esteem. Domestic violence is also a huge issue for trans women in those situations.
We really need to have more support for these young trans women in the community, in families, and through outreach and education. There needs to be more peace and love for these girls.