I never thought of myself as a Southern belle, but then, I can surely fake it.
I’m currently planted in Atlanta, a progressive bustling metropolis. It has had a turbulent past. During the Civil War most of the capitol was burned to the ground—think Gone With the Wind. In the sixties, it was a major hub of the civil rights movement. Famous Atlantans include Usher, T.I., Tyler Perry, Julia Roberts, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It’s currently home to yes, Elton John!, Bow Wow, and AIDS activist Toni-Michelle Williams.
A native Atlantan, twenty-eight year old Toni-Michelle has become an innovator in her community, developing ideas and practices based in transgender futurism and feminism, along with peer-led based leadership, for Atlanta Trans Leaders (ATL) and SNaP4Freedom School programs. She’s also taken to task the criminalization of HIV, as well!
Director of Solutions Not Punishment Collaboration (SNaP Co, a vigilante group that deals with the criminal legal system, concentrating on black trans and queer individuals, which also includes those living with HIV), Toni-Michelle recently acquired her degree in journalism from Norfolk State University. A teacher in training, she’s a graduate of the Sojourner Truth Leadership Circle (a black women’s focus group), and currently attending Generative Somatic and Embodied Leadership.
Ms. Williams’ CV also includes performance artist, author (The Most Dangerous Thing Out Here Is the Police), healer, and public speaker.
Having lost several close souls, Toni-Michelle has been intensely affected by this disease. For a couple of years she worked as a community health educator and HIV/STD tester with ACCESS AIDS Care in Norfolk, Virginia.
Partnered, Toni-Michelle is thankful that her beau is as committed to equality and ending the epidemic as she is! In her downtime, the busy advocate attends the cinema (last year her favorite film was If Beale Street Could Talk) and she takes pleasure hiking in nature with her pup Braxton. She points out that their names together form an artist she admires, Toni Braxton.
Atlanta in August is insufferable, with torturous humidity! But today, Toni-Michelle and I convene under a weeping willow, its leaves gingerly swaying in the tender breeze, a Mint Julep in our hands! Poo on the Southern heat.
Ruby Comer: Toni-Michelle, my god, you are a social…justice…crusader!
Toni-Michelle Williams: Since 2015, I’ve worked to develop the leadership and build the political power and consciousness of black trans and queer individuals in Atlanta. Together, we fight against laws and institutions that criminalize our existence and silence our experiences. I currently collaborate with Georgia Equality as a co-facilitator of the Young People Living with HIV group. I believe in healing justice and harm reduction as a catalyst for prevention and eradicating stigma in our community.
Kudos, and bless yer heart.
I just want to say, it is not only the “disease” that fails us as folks on the margins, but the system fails us as well.
Indeed. Tell me about those you loved who have passed from AIDS.
My cousin Chris [she takes a stern breath] passed away from AIDS complications in 1998, and in 2015, I lost my godmother, S.L., from cancer and other AIDS-related complications. She meant so much to the Black trans community in Norfolk, and all around the country. She advised all of us through laughter and through a good cussing out. She kept us accountable to our commitments. I do my work today with her in mind.
Sounds like a super person.
[She sips her frosty drink.] Then in 2016, the LGBT+ community in Atlanta lost two great souls from this disease: Antron-Reshaud Olukayode and trans-elder Cheryl Courtney-Evans. Antron experienced extreme poverty and homelessness in his last years. [Toni-Michelle coughs, maybe due to heavy pollen] In the summer of 2018, the City of Atlanta cut the HOPWA budget from $23 million to $9 million, making it impossible for organizations to house the 20,000+ people living with HIV and seeking services in our city.
Hooray that you not only keep up with the status quo, but fight against it. Besides losing people, has the epidemic affected you in other ways?
The AIDS epidemic kept me from my living my full truth for the majority of my life…. [She pauses.] My cousin Chris identified as gay, so that was the understanding of how he contracted the virus. Being that I was different, people thought that I was like Chris. That only made me more fearful of my truth. At seven years old, I was impacted by the contradictions that much of my family lived with.
Oh, Toni-Michelle, I am so sorry.
A few family members told me that I would “catch AIDS.” It was foolish, but I believed them for a very long time and that severely impacted my mental health. [She looks over yonder at a distant plantation.] Today, I play a support role in my family as we hold space for a family member who recently announced her HIV status. I am able to model that role gracefully and with dignity.
So the anger and frustration you felt, Toni-Michelle, moved you to activism.
In 2014, a family member shared with me that she was living with HIV. Her diagnosis, in addition to the deaths of Chris, S.L., Antron-Reshaud, and Cheryl, solidified my purpose in joining the movement to end the epidemic.
Tell me more on the criminalization of HIV and individuals who are transgender.
Some states make it a crime to intentionally not disclose one’s HIV status. However, such laws serve as a barrier to testing. In Georgia it is a felony if an HIV-positive person spits, bites, donates blood or semen, shares a needle, or solicits sex without disclosing their status.
HIV criminalization laws can also be used as tools of coercion and control in abusive relationships with partners and with police. In the 2016 report, The Most Dangerous Thing Out Here is the Police [a book she co-authored], an overwhelming eighty percent of the trans women of color reported having been approached or stopped by the APD within the last year, and of these, nearly half—forty-sex percent—said that police assumed they were sex workers.
The city of Atlanta is committed to dialogue with community activists to transform these policies and provide funds that support people living with HIV and the communities that are impacted by criminalization. In Georgia, there’s a coalition to end HIV criminalization: The Counter Narrative Project, Sister Love, Georgia Equality, THRIVE SS, the Black Futurist Group, SNaP Co and so many others.
You have enlightened me. Say, what date did you make the transition?
I identify as a woman of trans experience. There’s no specific date of my transition. That’s not how this works. [She leans in.] Everyone transitions every day. Whether it is physical, spiritual or financial there is just an acknowledgement that self-determination, change and growth are behooved of you. Transformation takes a lifetime. I began a medical journey in 2013 at twenty-one years old.
I get it. So, what did you learn about transitioning?
I learned that everyone who was present in your life during this deserves the space and the time to transition as well. [I nod wholeheartedly.] During the process, you may not have a complete vision of yourself, or may not even have the language, or the mental, or spiritual capacity to invite people into your truth. They, too, need space to process their grief and their loss in order to make room for all of the healing and joy that they will experience, simply from knowing you.
How did you choose the name Toni-Michelle?
My mother’s middle name is Michelle and Toni is derived from my uncle’s middle name, Antonio. A dear friend of mine from college coined “Toni-Michelle” in 2011 on Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
Lovely. Elaborate more on your healing abilities.
My healing practices center on the people and not the activity. It honors how black folks, especially in the South, struggle, survive, thrive, and create community and the resources necessary to make it day to day. I use somatic therapy, deep listening, reflexivity, prayer, meditation, and altar creation. I use intention-setting that provides a safe area, using bodies as a spiritual tool and an agent of transformation.
You’ve got gumption. When did you first get tested for HIV?
At the age of sixteen. I asked one of my dearest friends—a cisgender and heterosexual Black male—to support me and he did. It was one of the earliest moments that I remember fighting for my right to exist beyond the confinement of my family’s perception of who I was.
Wow. Sixteen? Good. How was the experience for you?
I remember sitting in the waiting room in Decatur, Georgia. A tester approached us, asking who would be first. I immediately answered, “I am the only one getting tested.” The tester lifted his eyebrow and said, “Um… No Miss Thing, ya boyfriend needs to get tested too.” As awkward as it was, my bestie agreed and moved through that moment with grace and dignity. It was a moment of true friendship.
I wanna know which individual has inspired you the most?
Whitney Houston has always been an inspiration. She embodied unconditional love and grace. Her music grounds me in all of my memories with my family members who are deceased.
Love her till the cows come home! Have you ever dated anyone who was living with HIV?
Absolutely. And they are still dear friends of mine. As in any relationship, I acknowledge that we all grow at our own pace, so it’s important to be supportive, loving, and patient….with…each….other.
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].