By Tommy Luckett
What do you do when you are invited into a space and seemingly forgotten once you are present?
If you happen to be one of three beautiful, intelligent, and outspoken transgender women of color named Tela La’Raine Love, Arianna Lint, or Octavia Yaz-mine Lewis MPA, then you SPEAK UP!
It was during the Monday morning’s training session at AIDSWatch 2015 in Washington, DC, when the statistics were given on the likelihood of African-American and Latina women contracting HIV. At that moment Arianna Lint stood up and shouted, “What about transgender women?” Her question was valid, because we of the transgender community know that transgender women of color are 43% more likely to contract HIV than our cisgender counterparts.
Another crucial mistake that was given as a fact was that “transgender” falls under the category of sexuality. It was during the Q & A session that my three trans* sisters stood up with a microphone in hand to explain the difference to the organizers. Being a person of trans* experience is how one identifies his or her own gender. Being a person of lesbian, gay, and bisexual experience is how one identifies his or her sexual identity. The two terms are not synonymous.
While they possessed the microphone, the question was asked by Octavia: “Why was the opportunity to attend AIDSWatch 2015 afforded to members of the transgender community when we were forgotten about once we had arrived and were counted as being in attendance?”
We found it problematic that the organizers deemed it necessary to have transgender representation, but did not allow members of the transgender community to be at the discussion table. In doing so, there was no breakout session planned that highlighted the issues related to being a trans* person living with HIV. Our cisgender organizers made the assumption that they knew what was best for us, but no one asked about our personal narratives.
In effect, our lived experiences were erased and either categorized along with men who have sex with men (MSM) or along with cisgender women. Neither of these assumptions were accurate, because my narrative is completely different from the narrative of cisgender women. Much like the women who in all sincerity have said to me, “You are a woman” or “I have an issue with saying you’re a trans* woman,” they are inadvertently erasing my gender identity. If we in the transgender community are stripped of our trans* identity, then what is the message that is sent out to those who know nothing of the trans* lived experience?
The message is that we cannot think or speak for ourselves, which has been proven to be untrue. We are among those of the brightest minds, and we demand our place at the table. The time for waiting on the respect we so deserve is over.
My sisters demanded that there be a space created for the transgender population in which anyone could attend, so the discussion of our lived experiences could happen. It was at that moment that Michael J. Kaplan stood at the microphone and made a very heartfelt, sincere, and public apology to the trans* population in attendance for what had transpired.
Remember, all of this happened during the morning session, and at some point during lunch or perhaps a little after lunch had concluded, the organizers had a room available during the breakout sessions which included the 20 or so transgender women of color and some of our cisgender allies. Douglas M. Brooks, the Director of the Office of National AIDS Policy, came and introduced himself in our session and said hello to all of those in attendance. It was a monumental time in all of our lives, because our trans* identity was acknowledged and appreciated.
The goal of the space that was created for us was to come up with three asks from the organizers of AIDSWatch as to what we would like to see happen for the next year concerning the transgender population:
- I hope to see more statistics given on the rate of infection in the transgender community.
- I hope to see a breakout session that consists of transgender facilitators or moderators.
- I also hope to see transgender people at the decision making table for the planning of next year’s AIDSWatch.
All in all, the camaraderie and fellowship that occurred at this year’s AIDSWatch is undeniable. I connected with fellow advocates in the fight to end the epidemic, and connected with some new ones. I spoke with my legislative officials and had great meetings. Hearts and minds were opened. Who could ask for anything more?
Tommy Luckett is a Little Rock, Arkansas-based PWN-USA member and an adviser with the network Positively Trans.