I wasn’t watching of course, but President Trump announced the end of HIV by 2030 in his State of the Union. Kudos to those who have the patience not to dismiss it immediately as Orwellian “doublespeak.” Certainly, the end of HIV cannot happen without significant new funding and sensible policies. But it cant happen without the engagement of those populations most affected by HIV, particularly our brothers and sisters in transgender communities. In that regard, Dirty Don’s administration has careened deliberately off the edge and is in some villainous free fall.
Of one thing we can be sure: The times, they are a-changing. That this can be a force for great purpose was reinforced for me a week ago, as the San Francisco Community Health Center (SFCHC) held its annual Pearl Gala.
The SFCHC, steered by its Executive Director, Lance Toma, is charting new waters, responding to a changing client base and expanding its provision of services beyond Asian and Pacific Islander communities. The event’s mistress of ceremonies, Tita Aida, kept us entertained and on time, with the SFCHC making a number of awards. In particular, the center recognized the California Prostitutes Education Project, which in recent years, has become a similar hub of HIV and health services for trans people of color in the East Bay. CALPEP, on whose Board I serve, is undergoing a major transition of its own, as its founding Executive Director, Gloria Lockett, retires later this year, after 34 years of service.
But the highlight was, without question, a short film the SFHCH played about one of its clients and volunteers, Martina Travis. The film should not have been a surprise to me. My partner, Erik Espera made the film, and was still editing it to his exacting standards late into the night before the event. But seeing the brutal, beautiful testimony of this woman on a big screen, in a packed room, seared and inspired me – as well as everyone else present.
She said simply, “I was born in a male’s body. But I am actually female. And I’m just beginning the transformation into the real me.”
And she took our breath away.
Martina got me reflecting on how grudgingly the AIDS movement joined the fight for trans rights. Yet, how also trans men and women have become the front line in that movement and human rights more broadly. Casting an eye back over the last thirty years,I can see how trans leaders played critical roles at pivotal points in history, driving us forward. Early in my induction into the global AIDS community, the Brazilian activist Jacqueline Rocha Cortes befriended me. She was one of the founding rocks of Brazil’s ground-breaking HIV program, made a film about her life, and we send her our love, support and positive vibes, as the country deals now with its own right-wing pugilist.
Some years later, I was introduced to GATE, a global network of activists which works on gender identity, gender expression and bodily diversity. Our paths had crossed because I had been seeking to raise awareness and support for HIV prevention for trans men, particularly those identifying as gay. I was deeply impressed at GATE’s ability to create compelling advocacy from different sexualities, genders and cultures. More recently, I have got to know JD Davids, renowned former editor of The Body. JD has written a wide range of informative, angry and entertaining articles on what it means to live as a trans man. His article describing his own experience of PrEP is pointed and hilarious. I strongly recommend it.
At the intersection of health and human rights is the Oakland-based national organization, the Transgender Law Center, which is led by Kris Hayashi. TLC’s extraordinary and outspoken Co-Director of Policy is Cecilia Chung, and she has to call out, sadly too routinely, the growing epidemic of violence against trans women. Most recently she highlighted the horrific attempted murder of Pinky, a young trans lady from Houston, who, at the same time as a noted gay African American actor was attacked, was chased and shot 5 times in broad daylight. Nobody attempted to help her. People walked by as if she was not there.
Cecilia, on her Facebook page, wrote, “Of course the trans community is outraged by the racist homophobic attack Jussie Smollett endured but that outrage is outweighed by the feeling of anger and abandonment when two shootings of black trans women in one month went unnoticed. Please do better!”
According to the Human Rights Campaign, there were 26 murders of trans women in the USA in 2018. At precisely this time, the US President sought to ban trans people from serving in the armed services, against the advice of his Generals. He also started to seek the imposition of a rigid retrograde definition of gender that could restrict federal funding of everything from access to medicines to housing.
Even in polite company, some white gay men and women can still be heard suggesting it’s time to remove the Bs (because they are just hedging their bets) and Ts (because they are just too out there) from our rainbow coalition. Being gay does not deactivate your entitlement. I confess I have no conception of how it must feel to look at myself, and know that I am in the wrong body. The journey to meet my own authentic self (Iike many men and women of my age, regardless of class, color or culture) has required that I face down a society that for generations denied my being. That gives me some degree of solidarity and common purpose with millions of people around the world, who I will never know.
In fact, we are all together walking on a long, long road. And our guides are the Martinas, Titas, Kris, Cecilias, and JDs. They know that we are not in for a comfy downhill drawl, but up against a steep mountain face, pulling ourselves up, one step after another. But always together.