It is National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, and here we go again, striving to convince the world that an HIV diagnosis is nothing to be ashamed of, and that trans women are real women too. Honestly, I am frustrated and sick of it.
Why? Thank you for asking! Because all womanhood has been relegated to being devalued, unappreciated, and misunderstood while simultaneously being told who you should be, and how you should act, by people who are not us. Cis and Trans are simply ways to describe a person’s journey to womanhood. Don’t get caught up in the hype!
Particularly, Black women have been forced and boxed into this narrative of being the angry Black woman with loads of baggage that comes with it. Enough is enough! Sisters, let me start by saying that my trans womanhood in no way infringes upon yours. Simply telling you that I am a woman should be enough. My personal journey does not invalidate yours.
Neither my feminine essence, Southern gentility, my love of French perfumes and sappy rom-com, or my occasional appearance on Tinder, does not take anything away from your womanity. Perhaps, my experiences on this journey validate yours. With that out of the way, we know that we are fighting the same oppressors and oppression and are stronger when we fight together.
Now that the niceties are out of the way, let’s look at women and girls and the impact of stigma and shame. For those of us who ascribe to theology, God created Adam and then Eve — right from Adam’s rib. The rib is the thing that protects a person’s heart, so from the very beginning, women were the protectors of affairs of the heart.
When women and girls are hurting, the entire family unit feels it. When we are loaded down with stigma and shame, we are never entirely free in our relationships. For those living with HIV, that stigma and shame can be a life sentence. Women have enough burdens to bear simply because of who we are.
Starting today, all of us must understand that women living with HIV are not stereotypes, “loose” women, or any of the other rubbish that folks would make you believe. Instead, women and girls living with HIV are experienced leaders in health care systems. Women and girls living with HIV are experts in navigating systems of inequality. Women and girls living with HIV are forces of nature who will forever change the systems of care simply because they are women.
Let’s face it; health care systems were not created for women. The fact that Viagra exists and is covered by insurance is proof of that. Yet, women are continually changing models of care to be more culturally competent, comprehensive, and compassionate. There is still a long way to go, and things are slowly moving in the right direction.
If you are a woman living with HIV, then the very best thing you can do for yourself is to take your medication(s), maintain an undetectable viral load, and maintain your mental and emotional health. Science has proven what many of us have known for years, people who maintain an undetectable viral load cannot pass HIV to their sexual partners. Not only are you taking care of yourself, but also your loved ones.
If you are a woman not living with HIV, then do these same things and regularly test if you are sexually active. I empower each and every woman to put herself first. That sounds selfish, doesn’t it? Well, it is! Remember, an empty pitcher can’t pour any water. Refill yourself as often as you need to. You must have something to give something. If momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
I give you permission to be your best self at all times. I give you permission to say NO to things you don’t want and YES to things you do. I give you permission to have an amazing and healthy sex life full of self-discovery and gratification. I empower all women and girls to achieve their dreams and change the world.
According to HIV.gov, over 38 million people are diagnosed with HIV, so you are not alone. You have the power to be, do and live any way that you see fit. Other’s opinions of you are just that — their opinions. I dare you to live your life without stigma and shame. I will not lie and say that it is easy; I am just saying it is worth it.
This opinion was written by Tori Cooper. She is a Health & Equity Consultant, community organizer, educator, published author and leader in the transgender and HIV communities and recently honored as one of the most influential LGBTQ Georgians by OUT Georgia in 2020.
She leads with more than 30 years of experience at all levels of HIV service, from volunteer roles to her role as executive director and founder of Advocates for Better Care Atlanta, LLC.
She now serves as the Human Rights Campaign’s Director of Community Engagement for the Transgender Justice Initiative. In this role, her focus includes economic empowerment; capacity building programs; public safety; and expanding public education campaigns.
She was also a 2019 POZ 100 honoree.