I work for an organization called Voices of Positive Women in Toronto. Their mandate is to empower and support women who are living with HIV and AIDS, improving their range of available options for treatment, and their access to services. My job is to coordinate community partnerships across the province of Ontario, to network, remove barriers to access, improve contact and outreach in more isolated and rural areas, and increase the diversity of women who are served. We also offer things like peer support, a training network, a treatment fund, and a network for treatment updates. Essentially we try to create a community of HIV-positive women.
In dealing with HIV-positive status, there are differences in women’s needs versus men’s needs, and there are few programs for women within traditional AIDS organizations. There are medical issues, for example, in how various drugs interact with female bodies. There are often social and economic issues of childcare and poverty; women may be in abusive relationships and have greater difficulty accessing services.
There are also issues which are endemic to regional differences. People such as substance users need HIV services but they have to deal with services in Toronto; if they’re geographically isolated, many can’t get there, nor should they have to in order to get what they need. A significant issue for women in smaller communities is that HIV still carries a social stigma, and they are hesistant to identify themselves as HIV positive, and to seek out the services they need. There’s still a major need for education in that regard, and people need to know that viruses don’t have a sexual orientation. A lot of work has been done, but marginalized communities need more work done, especially for people who don’t have a lot of power and control. There’s also a lack of attention to non-North American and European regions. The HIV-positive community tends to be focused around people who have money.
Hiring me, I think, represented a desire for the organization to be more trans-positive, and address the issues that trans women face, since I have experience working in community organizations like Meal Trans that reach out to street-active and lower income trans women. Nobody knows the exact percentage for sure, but a very high percentage of trans women are thought to be sex workers. When organizations try to target these women, it frequently comes off as sexist, racist, and homophobic. People also make assumptions about trans bodies, especially in terms of medicating them. We need to more effectively address the needs of these women, since for every trans woman that can afford treatment, there are twenty or fifty who can’t. Plus, women still consider HIV/AIDS a male thing and think they are invulnerable, especially if they identify as lesbian. Yet many lesbian-identified women still sleep with men, sexual assaults occur, etc. There isn’t one particular lifestyle which leads to being HIV positive. Studies on trans women end with very simplistic recommendations, such as “Yes, this is a problem and we should do something”, and then leave it at that.
One challenge is spreading the word to many of the trans women who need to find out about these services. There are hundreds of trans sex workers in Toronto alone; they tend to self-segregate and it can be hard to get the word out. I rely a lot on word of mouth, since I have a connection with the street community, and I still have a lot of friends who continue to do sex work.
I like being trans. I’m really out about it. But I’m a person too, and I recognize that a lot of oppressions are related. I want trans women to be able to access the services they need more comfortably. Trans women need to be included in material about HIV/AIDS, they need a safe space, and they need a service which is not judgemental.