by David Waggoner
Just the other day, a couple of friends of mine were talking about how they couldn’t wait for the second season of Orange Is the New Black, the hit television drama, currently available only on Netflix. I’m not surprised. It has the fastest growing fan base since AMC’s The Walking Dead. It’s that big. And its demographic is the one advertisers want, even though Netflix doesn’t accept advertising; their viewers have to pay to get their weekly fix. Who knew that a show featuring women behind bars would become such a hit?
And who knew that one of its most compelling characters—played by this month’s cover girl, Laverne Cox, would become such a high profile star? What makes our cover au courant is that here is a trans woman who represents so many who don’t have a voice. Like most people, HIV has impacted her circle of friends. But even if it hadn’t, she would be talking about HIV and social justice, anyway. She is the type of activist, like the recently departed Maya Angelou [A&U, January 2001], who advocates for everyone and anyone who is experiencing stigma and discrimination.
Laverne’s fame is both rewarding and a little bit gut-wrenching. Instead of playing it safe, she speaks to the reality that the transgender community has been disproportionately affected by HIV. She knows the rates of HIV infection are unacceptable and that she can use her familiarity to further educate and destigmatize HIV in this and other communities. According to recent studies from both CDC and UNAIDS many AIDS organizations are not fully engaged with the transgender community—and they lack the funds to provide appropriate prevention information. It’s as if the already marginalized transgender community is further marginalized by the stigma attached to living with HIV. Organizations should make it a priority to address the need for better ways to educate about the risk of HIV transmission when it is related to the fact that sharing needles (for injectable hormone therapy) is not understood and oftentimes completely ignored by service providers.
The scary statistic that I read from the CDC is that nearly forty percent of trans women in urban centers are infected with HIV. And though this unacceptable fact may not do much to counter the widely accepted fiction that transgender women don’t care about themselves, we need to focus on a basic truth: Transgender individuals literally do not have access to the tools that would help lower the risk of HIV. That is, we’re still dealing with needle exchange programs that are not fully funded in this country. This isn’t happening in Australia (the site of next month’s XXth International AIDS Conference in Melbourne).
Sharin’ needles isn’t a problem in that country—where the risk of HIV infection for injection drug users was quickly brought under control thanks in part to needle-exchange programs, which were launched in the AIDS era as far back as the late eighties. How many lives have been spared because of nonjudgmental thinking on the part of the Australian government? Since the late eighties, Australia’s transgender community has also had access to clean needles. It’s time that Americans show concern for the growing epidemic in the transgender community. It’s time for more folks to tune into Laverne Cox’s message: “When we talk about the [disproportionate] HIV transmission rate amongst trans women, so often it’s trans women of color.”
Cox is not the only one giving voice to the barriers that stand in the way of access to safer sex information, prevention tools, testing, and treatment. In this issue, it’s plain to see across all of our articles that, like Cox, individuals and organizations are finding new ways to shake up medium and message. Africa Goal, a non-profit based in East Africa, uses World Cup fever to raise AIDS awareness. The Stigma Project creates iconic and eye-catching posters. The ballroom community takes to the runway. And Project1VOICE, for its annual 1VOICE/1PLAY/1DAY event, is staging a reading of For Colored Girls along with a health fair. With allies like these, one thing is clear to me: Speaking out loud and proud about the fight against AIDS has become the new normal.
David Waggoner is Editor in Chief and Publisher of A&U, the first national HIV/AIDS magazine.