Diva for Justice
Health educator, TV star & Ambassador for The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation Chandi Moore talks about HIV criminalization laws, trans identity and needing no excuses
by Larry Buhl
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
At the photo shoot for this story, Julie Cloutier, a representative from The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, presented Chandi Moore with three ribbons to select from Taylor’s own collection, a gesture for being ETAF’s newest ambassador.
When Cloutier opened the third box to show the largest and most bejeweled ribbon, everyone surrounding her—the photographer, Sean Black, and the men doing hair and make up—said, simultaneously, “Oh that one, that’s so Chandi.”
With her purple locks and long lashes, Chandi Moore’s public persona could be described as Big Beautiful Diva. But when I sat down at her office at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, where she’s a trans youth health and HIV prevention educator, she came across as gently sweet, grounded, and other-focused. She tends to call people “sweetie,” which threw me at first.
Chandi Moore may be the most famous person currently working at Children’s Hospital, thanks to reality television.
Moore wasn’t looking for a role in television when Caitlyn Jenner’s producers discovered her in 2015.
“I don’t know how they found me, to be quite honest,” Moore says. “I was here at work and I got a call from a production company saying they wanted to talk about something with Caitlyn Jenner and would I sign a disclosure? O-kayyy.”
That led to an in-person interview, then a Skype interview, then a mixer where she met Jenner, and then a leading role on I Am Cait.
That role led to public disclosure, through televised heartfelt discussions with Jenner, of her struggles with coming out trans to her family and her run-ins with the law. It also led to articles like “19 Times Chandi Moore Was the Real Star of I Am Cait” and random encounters on the street—almost all favorable—and even one at the Grand Canyon.
“We were filming in Arizona during the second season and we went to the Grand Canyon,” Moore recalls. “While we were shopping this lady from Russia spotted me. She reached out and hugged me and thanked me for being myself.”
Knowing me, knowing you
For many trans people there are persistent questions of identity. The question is, first, who am I? After that question is answered it’s society that asks, daily: Who are you?
“People feel obligated to tell me who I am and who I am not,” Moore says. “I pick and choose my battles, though. I have a thick armor, but I don’t take on every battle.”
So, for those who are inclined to tell her who she is, she has a simple message.
“I’m trans. I am okay with being trans. And I want you to know that I am trans so that when you come talk to me you know what you’re getting into. That’s part of the reason I wear big lashes. It eliminates the whole problem getting that out in the open right away.”
“I don’t want a relationship with a boyfriend who feels like he has to be sneaky about it,” she continues. “I want a partner who is comfortable with me and doing regular things out in public that cisgender women and men do.”
Moore explains that her identity is not about “passing” as a woman.
“I don’t want to be a woman. I am happy being the best of both worlds. I feel like a lot of issues people suffer from is that they think we all want to be women. Some of us just want to be. Just be.”
Growing up and just being was more of a challenge for Moore, she tells me. Born Earl Moore, she was raised in Los Angeles with three siblings by very religious parents.
She now considers herself more spiritual than religious, but at the time her family’s devotion to the church put up extra obstacles to coming to terms with who she was.
“Whenever the church doors were open, we were at church, vacation bible school, ushers, all of it. It was hard for me to go to church and think that sermons of love were about me. That got me disconnected with God for so many years.”
The birth of Chandelier
Her transition was going to happen eventually, but it was a drag show at a straight nightclub in Culver City, California, that hastened the coming out, Moore says.
“I think I felt [trans] deep inside for a long time but was suppressing it because I didn’t know what to do with how I was feeling,” she tells me. “But other people recognized what I could not see.”
And those people—friends—gave her a little push out of the closet by making her part of a drag show.
“They gave me the wardrobe and hired a make-up and hair stylist for me, so I felt like I couldn’t back out,” she says. “Then they had me pull names out of a hat. I pulled out Chandelier.”
She shortened it to Chandi, and the rest is history.
But first, there was a stop in prison.
Getting by, getting caught, getting out
On an episode of I Am Cait, Chandi confessed to Jenner about what she did to survive during the salad days of her transition. For those who didn’t see the show, here is the recap: In the early nineties she moved away from her family—cut ties with them—and ended up with what she calls an “unsavory crowd.” For survival money she resorted to check cashing, credit card fraud, and selling fake IDs. She was caught and sent to prison in 1992 and with good behavior served less than six months of a sixteen-month sentence.
If you think that being trans in prison is difficult and degrading and humiliating, Chandi says you’re right. At the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, she was placed with the general population of men, because that’s where officials determined she should be based on her genitalia.
“There were 1,500 men in our area and eight of us were trans, but they wouldn’t classify us as trans. Their designation for us was PC, because we needed protective custody.” Except the PCs weren’t given anything close to protective custody.
“There weren’t single showers, just eight-men stalls, and I would try to shower super-early or late at night,” Chandi recalled. “Still there would always be men coming to the shower following me, trying to get whatever, a look, a touch, anything.”
The authorities did nothing to protect her from the advances. What saved her was a friendship she formed with a straight boxer in her dorm who acted as her platonic guardian.
Chandi told me that her relatively short prison experience was a “huge wake up call.”
“I had epiphany in prison that I did not want my life to be like that. I felt there was something more in me that I could offer the world and being in prison wasn’t going to help me get there.”
After getting out, she continued on her journey to transition and to figure out what she could be giving to the world. She reconnected with her parents, who put her through cosmetology school. With a beauty certificate she started working at the Beverly Center Macy’s cosmetics counter.
After a few years a friend and mentor told her about a job opening for a health educator at the Minority AIDS Project. “I said I don’t know anything about prevention. But I felt like if I was trained properly with the right tools I could do it.”
While working at Minority AIDS Project she volunteered with Trans GIA (girl in action) Divas to empower trans women. The group won the Trans Pride LA community advocate award in 2011.
At her current position at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, Chandi facilitates HIV testing and counseling. She also leads groups like BLUSH (Brave Leaders Unified to Strengthen Health), which educates trans youth about HIV. And she’s getting a certificate in research to be able to lead more focus groups. She’s done expert consultation for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on youth and HIV. She also stars in the CDC’s new HIV testing and prevention campaign, “Doing It.”
Empowering trans youth to stay safe
The statistics on HIV for trans women are shocking. Studies show that transgender women are forty-nine times more likely to be HIV-positive and that one out of every three trans women of color is HIV-positive already.
“The rate of HIV [among trans women] is slowly dwindling and we think PrEP has a lot to do with that,” Moore says. “But the rate of STDs is going up, and we think PrEP has to do with that too. People have been a little comfortable with using PrEP without a condom.”
Moore explains that the high rate of HIV and STDs among trans women of color stems from how families and society treats them.
“Trans women of color often don’t have the support of family when they decide to transition. They get put out on the streets. That’s where the survival sex comes in. These johns out here don’t care. They will pay more to have sex unprotected. And the women need the money. They will do what they need to do. They have to pay for their room for the night, food, and keep up their appearance to look appealing to the johns. That puts them more at risk.”
Moore says most know the risk factors of HIV transmission. “All of that is out the window when they need to survive.”
Moore’s survival in her youth didn’t require sex, she says. And she’s HIV-negative, despite being “outed” in a magazine as one of the most “amazing HIV-positive people of 2016.”
“They never talked to me before they wrote the article,” Moore says, rolling her eyes. “I saw it in my Facebook inbox. I didn’t tell them to correct it, because I guess I was happy getting accolades for the work I do.”
Then Moore started hearing that friends were upset because she never disclosed her HIV status.
“They were saying ‘I wish Chandi would have told me because I wouldn’t have treated her differently.’”
So Moore made a Facebook post to correct the record, which ended up offending people who were positive.
“They said, ‘Why did you have to say you’re negative? There’s nothing wrong with being positive.’’” The fact that she got flack from both sides Moore attributes to the stigma still surrounding HIV.
All of her work in HIV education and outreach, though maybe not the public HIV misdiagnosis, could have happened without I Am Cait. But Moore says she’s glad the show gave her a bigger platform for the issues she was already talking about.
One of the newer issues is reforming HIV criminalization laws.
HIV decriminalization advocate
“HIV criminalization is very intricate and sometimes misunderstood at first even by the highly educated,” Moore says.
“Because HIV affects marginalized populations, particularly gay, African-American, poor, drug users, and sex workers, it is a uniquely stigmatized disease. Once people learn the facts about the current state of HIV and what these laws do, most people understand that reforming the laws are actually key to ending the AIDS epidemic.”
In 1990 the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act, required states to pass criminal laws (if none existed) to prosecute any person who knowingly exposed anyone to HIV. Thirty-two states in the U.S. still have HIV criminal laws on the books. Eleven states can send people living with HIV to prison for behaviors that pose no risk of transmission.
Moore’s first effort as ETAF ambassador is to encourage lawmakers to co-sponsor the latest iteration of the bill written by Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) [A&U, October 2012], the Repeal HIV Discrimination Act, which encourages states to review and reform statutes that can criminalize people living with HIV.
“These laws that criminalize people using their HIV status are based on outdated science and discourage people from getting tested,” Moore says.
Moore points to other laws she says are outdated, like felony solicitation enforcement, which disproportionately impacts transgender women of color.
She says social media is one of the key ways she’s advocating for change, but being an ambassador for ETAF has allowed her to use her voice in other platforms.
“Fighting for those trans and gender non-conforming, non-binary and queer youth who feel that they have no voice gives me the drive to do all I can.”
As for Moore’s relationship with her family, she tells me it’s never been better.
“It took us a long time to get there. My mom came on the show and had a conversation with Caitlyn. People stop me on the streets and tell me to thank my mom for doing that.”
Ever the helper, when she left her family in the early nineties, her concern was less for herself than for them.
“I worried that it would be awkward and embarrassing for my family to explain to others [that I was trans]. I thought that staying away from them was the best thing.”
Moore uses her experience to advise trans youth and young adults to “leave the door open a bit” with family. “I tell them that their families may not grasp everything right now. But give them time to be reintroduced to the person that you’ve become. My mom didn’t give birth to Chandelier. She needed time to know how to love Chandelier.”
Make-Up and Hair by Sir Tony: www.beautybysirtony.com.
Gown by Tony Iniguez Manaz: www.facebook.com/IniguezTony.
Nails: INAILS. Manicurist: Vanessa Cun.
Studio: Apex Photo Studios www.apexphotostudios.com.
Elizabeth Taylor’s red ribbon worn by Chandi Moore, courtesy of The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.
Larry Buhl is a radio news reporter, screenwriter, and novelist living in Los Angeles. He interviewed actress Jenna Ortega for the May cover story. Follow him on Twitter @LarryBuhl.