Sexual Rights of HIV+ Transwomen
by Dee Borrego
I’m puzzled by the question of what the sexual rights of HIV+ transgender women are. To me, as an openly HIV+ transwoman, the answer is as clear as glass. Simply put, our rights to sexuality and sexual expression are the same as any other persons, male or female.
Just because transwomen don’t fit into culturally predefined standards for male or female expression or behavior, doesn’t mean that we lose the right to have an independent sexual identity. It does, however, mean that society at large will view our sexual rights as being less than their own, by and large, and that the general population sometimes needs to be reminded of what equality for all would really look like. With that in mind, here are some points to illustrate how HIV+ transwomen have right to make the same choices as every other person on the planet.
The number one thing that all women and transwomen share is the right to choice in their own life. We have a right, just as every other woman and man, to make the best decisions for ourselves about our own bodies. It’s natural for people to be curious about transgender people, as we’re certainly not the standard, but it does not infer the right to anyone to question a transwoman about her choices and her body. She alone has the right to determine what she does with her body. This includes both sexual partners and her choices on hormones/surgeries.
Living with HIV does not mean a transwoman cannot be on hormone therapy or choose to have any number of surgical procedures done(more on hormones, surgical procedures and trans health here), but these are all decisions that are the individual’s own to make and no one else’s. Some transwomen will choose to take hormones – some won’t. Some transwomen will choose to have some type of surgery – which can include, but is by no means limited to, sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) or breast augmentation – and some will not. Each person has the right to make their own decisions on these matters, and that’s not something generally open for discussion. Nor can anyone tell her what is the “correct” way for her to express herself sexually – this too is her decision.
All women, including transgender women, have the right to determine their own partners, of any gender, without fear or judgment for doing so. There is no “right way” when it comes to sexuality, especially when talking about transgender women. We have the right to that individuality, just as we have a right to the air which fills our lungs. Some transgender women love women, some love men, some love both, and some love neither. The right to love and be loved is not up for public debate. It simply is, and should be accepted as such.
Since HIV+ transwomen may choose to be with women sexually, it’s important that our community has access to comprehensive education around HIV and family planning. This includes having access condoms, as well as supports in place to help HIV+ transwomen make educated decisions around family planning and conception. While being on hormone therapy can cause infertility, it’s not a guarantee that pregnancy could not happen if condoms aren’t used correctly by someone with male genitalia.
Perhaps the more important aspect of condom access affects all people – male, female, and transgender, alike – is that condom access can decrease the likelihood of HIV infection. If HIV+ transwomen have access to free condoms, and are shown how to properly use them, it can help them to be empowered to use condoms with their sexual partners.
Many transwomen find themselves in a situation where they must perform sex work in order to survive. In fact, that’s one of the many socioeconomic drivers which keeps the levels of infection in our community so high in the first place. By providing these women with tools, like condoms, they then have what they need to try to prevent spreading HIV to their clients or from acquiring other infections from them. HIV+ transwomen are often in a position where sex work is the only viable option for self-preservation, and they have the right to protect themselves and others as best they can.
Yet due to the marginalization from society and other driving factorswhich force many transwomen into sex work, many transwomen are victims of sexual violence at some point in their lives. Just like any woman or man who’s been sexually assaulted or raped, transwomen have the right to help in this situation, yet oftentimes the police or other authorities are not considered places of sanctuary and help for transwomen. Many times the police or other authorities have ridiculed or harassed transwomen in need of police assistance, often in times of crisis for the individual transwoman who’s been the victim. The authorities may not believe her, or will subject her to more public humiliations, such as insisting on using inappropriate names, either legal names or otherwise, and in general, further causing more damage to a person who’s already been hurt. In places where HIV disclosure laws also stand, there is even potential for punishment against the victim for not disclosing their status before their attack. These factors, among many others, all contribute to HIV+ transwomen feeling as if they’ve lost their rights to fair and equatable treatment under the law, especially in cases such as rape or sexual assault.
Another way we can choose to protect HIV+ transgender women is through providing clean needle access. Just like dealing with drug addictions, which is also a peril faced by many transwomen, having access to clean needles can greatly reduce the number of infections in a given area. In the transgender community, transwomen will use needles for injecting hormones and if clean needles are unavailable, people will share them, despite the dangers. Reusing needles can be dangerous on a number of levels, and sharing hormone needles is not always viewed or understood by the community itself as being as dangerous a choice it can be.
Perhaps the greatest choice and challenge for HIV+ transwomen is around disclosure. In many states, the laws around disclosure are quite severe,to the extent that it is law in some states to disclosure your HIV status before sex, with harsh penalties for not doing so. Thankfully this is not the case in every state – so be sure to know your local laws. But transwomen also face the challenge of disclosing their gender history to potential partners. This task is never an easy one to do and it can often be filled with hardships and disappointments. Not every potential partner will be able to accept a trans person as a sexual partner, just as not everyone can accept having a sexual partner with HIV, but the right to disclose any part of one’s status should remain with the individual.
Only each individual can know when, where, and how is the right way for them to tell their partner or potential partner(s) about both their HIV status and their gender history. This also means that HIV+ transwomen have the right not to tell everything about themselves to everyone, including their sexual partners. Many times, for many different reasons, disclosing something so personal about oneself, such as being HIV+ or being a transwoman, could put an individual in grave danger. For a community already marginalized by mainstream society, this is reason enough for us to have the right to choose.
Privacy really is the ultimate right for all HIV+ people, transgender or not.We have the right to share our stories, our fears and our experiences, just as much as we have a right to keep them to ourselves. No one should be able to force anyone to overexpose their personal life, especially around matters as personal and sensitive as gender and HIV status. Many people who aren’t living with HIV or who aren’t transgender feel that they will always have the right to fulfill their own curiosity about the differences between us all. And while I celebrate their curiosity, I wish it were more widely known that every human being deserves privacy when it comes to their sex life. Whether or not we choose to be open or to share whatever details we want with other is always, and should always stay, a matter of personal choice.
Fire: Sparking the flames in each other – An Art/Resource Zine by and for Southern Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, Same Gender Loving, questioning Youth and our Allies
Harm Reduction Coalition – resources and info on clean needle access, Hep C, HIV, and more!
Positive Justice Project – read more about HIV Criminalization Laws and how they impact people in your state