July 27, 2016
by Tiommi Luckett
**This blog post originally appeared on The Well Project’s A Girl Like Me Blog and is reposted with permission**
As far as my advocacy is concerned, I firmly believe there is no big I and little You. I recently attended the Desiree Alliance Conference in New Orleans, LA from July 10-14 although the conference officially ended on July 15. For those who don’t know the coalition of sex workers, health professionals, social scientists, professional sex educators and their supporting networks that make up the Desiree Alliance, do not feel alone. Each of us wants to be counted and so we go hard for our intersecting identities.
I implore you to do as I have done and broaden your horizon when thinking about those who are marginalized, disenfranchised and oppressed. Even before attending Desiree, I declared that sex work should be decriminalized because as a transgender woman of color, I am often considered to be a sex worker so the sex work community and my transgender community are inextricably linked. The reason for this blog is that I was sent a link to an article that portrayed a sex worker living with HIV as a predator, and I’m just not here for that.
You may ask why I choose to speak up on this matter and the answer is simple. People who are living with HIV are targets in the judicial system. Michael Johnson is a testament to that fact. His actual trial took all of three days from opening to closing statements. He was already deemed guilty in the court of public opinion and received a guilty verdict. He is now serving his sentence. Women are also marginalized when it comes to HIV. Miss Mendoza of Otsego County, Michigan is no exception. In reading the article, the language used to describe Mendoza was highly offensive and atrocious. The behavior of the Gaylord Police Department officer(s) should have repercussions because after studying up on Michigan law as it pertains to HIV transmission, they had no right to disclose her status to anyone with whom they believed she had been intimate. The police are not public health officials, so they violated her privacy in doing so. The Otsego County Prosecuting Attorney Mike Rola stated the men who had solicited sex from Mendoza would not be charged because in order to prosecute Mendoza, Rola needs her clients to be free in order to participate as witnesses in the trial against Mendoza. This is a gross miscarriage of justice. The charges against Mendoza consist of 17 felony counts of HIV/AIDS-Failure to Disclose, prostitution/accosting and soliciting as well as using a computer to commit a crime. Again how is it fair that she be charged for a crime in which she didn’t act alone, but those men who solicited her services, if it even happened, not be. The article did not state whether Mendoza had undetectable levels, or if a condom was used, nor whether HIV was even transmitted.
I am furious. The reporting of this is repulsive. I, along with several other phenomenal women, worked on a guide for media when reporting about PEOPLE LIVING WITH HIV. We are not only our statuses. We are not monsters who prey on others. A great number of us are educated about our condition and work to never see it transmitted to anyone else. The stigma that is attached to having a positive diagnosis is still a huge barrier to people actually learning their status. These laws that prosecute us simply for having a positive diagnosis are the reasons why the virus continues to be transmitted every year. I have undetectable levels of HIV in my blood and a T-Cell count of 1085. That means I am healthy and unable to transmit the virus. Even still, the laws don’t take into account any of that, and some do not require the emission of semen for prosecution. It all boils down to non-disclosure.
What the article does not mention are the conditions surrounding Mendoza having to engage in sex work in the first place. Is it because she is discriminated against for being a minority (woman, Latina, PLHIV)? Is it because of her intersecting identities that she does not make a living wage? I know that trans women who engage in survival sex work do so because they are rejected during interviews when applying for jobs. We become a liability to the companies for which we come so highly qualified. Whenever identification documents do not match gender presentation, the door is automatically slammed in the faces of most trans women. I am a new resident to Michigan and I know there are organizations that could collaborate in aiding Mendoza’s defense. I only hope that they pay attention and do what is right.