Can you talk to me about your experience of living with HIV as a transgender woman? Do you feel that the challenges are more difficult or different for a transgender person living with HIV than a non-trans person?
Well, it's kind of like you're dealing with a quadruple stigma. You're dealing with being black, you're dealing with being transgender, you're dealing with being poor and uneducated, and then you're dealing with this ...
So you've got those four stigmas always hovering over you. Every day is a fight -- a fight to use the bathroom, a fight to get a job, a fight to get people to respect you as you present yourself, a fight just to have normal human rights everyone else takes for granted every day. It's a fight every day for us to have them.
We have to build an exterior to be able to withstand what we have to go through. And the trauma of not even being able to have counseling or anything to deal with the issues in our paths, like rape and molestation and abuse, and all the things that happen to transgender people when they're young. Because usually we're thrown out in the street. Usually you're put out, you know, at a young age.
I know that you founded an organization here in Atlanta, Ga., called LaGender to help the transgender community. Is it for the transgender community, or is it for transgender women who are living with HIV?
It's for both. Because we are advocates and we're a voice for the transgender community -- all issues that affect our lives. We also do education and workshops and trainings. We found out that the best way to get the doors open to the services that are available to trans people is to get the staff and the organizations and professional businesses educated on gender identity. And that has been the catalyst that we have used to open up the doors.
Not with everybody, but with most people, if they can get the questions answered that they need to have answered, [it helps to educate them.] Because basically a lot of people have got their education from Jerry Springer and Maury Povich. And so, when you have a real person there in front of you -- and I let them go under my dress and ask me any question that they ever wanted to ever ask a transgender person that keeps them from not understanding the experience and that this is not a choice. We did not choose this. You just don't choose that you are going to be another gender, and you're not. That's the way our brains are.
With any sex people you can see that they have genitalia that's male or female. That's a physical thing that you can see. But when it comes to the mind, people can't gather that that happened in our mind.
One of the things that you just mentioned a little earlier makes me think of if there's a high rate of trauma in the transgender community. Because you just said, "Many of us have been raped. We were molested. We were kicked out." So I know that you work with a lot of transgender people here in Atlanta. Are those the stories that you're hearing? Is that a common experience?
It's a common experience. And then, not to be accepted in the shelters when you do become homeless -- the homeless shelters will make you dress as your birth sex, instead of the gender you identify in, or else they will not let you in.
Uh-huh, re-traumatizing. And we never have had the counseling to deal with the trauma. So people are not considering what our experience is, what we have to deal with on a daily basis, like post-traumatic stress syndrome. And that's why we have a lot of issues, mental issues. Because we haven't had the tools, or the therapy, or the resources to get rid of that -- you know, heal through what has caused that, and then be able to deal with our gender identity.
People think that the gender identity has something to do with all of that. But even that -- being raped and abused -- doesn't make you transgender. You know, it doesn't.
Let me ask you about your health now. Where do you get your care? What meds are you on? How is your overall health at this point in your life?
My health has been the best it has ever been. I finally found a regimen and a doctor who is very knowledgeable about transgender medicine.
And who is that (just to give that person a plug)?
OK. Hermione Wilson. She's a physician's assistant, but she's a good one. She should be a doctor. Because the doctor I had, I had so many problems with him. He just wanted to deal with my HIV. He did not want to deal with my gender identity, period, because of his religious beliefs. He didn't say that. He didn't have to say it. I read between the lines. And, plus, his nurse, she was the same way, which she had told me.
That's a problem. Because people may not want to go back to care. It may affect their treatment for their HIV if they're not going in. It could prevent you from going when you have the flu, or a cold, or something like that. So that's great that you were able to kind of say, "Enough is enough."
The thing with transgender people: They're more concerned, even when they have HIV and AIDS, about their gender identity, than they are about their HIV and AIDS. They want us on the road that they are interested in. And if you address that issue, you'll get them to adhere to their drugs; you'll get them to comply more with whatever regimen they're on; and it's just an overall ... because it makes them feel whole and it makes them feel that they are still achieving toward their beauty. And then they want to invest in their health. They want to take their medicine. They want to go to their doctors' appointments.
But if you just want to brush over the person and just get to the disease, when that person got all these barriers, you're not [going to be able to do that.] You have to go beyond that. And fortunately, we have the Center of Excellence for Transgender Health in San Francisco, run by JoAnne Keatley. She's been my mentor for a long time. They have developed a website with all the protocols on there: for the doctors, how to distribute hormone therapy to transgender people; how mental health therapists are supposed to do all the protocols. So a doctor can't say, "I don't know anything about transgender." They can go to the website and pull it up, and then they can get it now.
So, you brought up a question for me. Do you take hormone therapy?
And have you had any complications between your HIV meds and your hormone therapy?
No. No, it seems to work perfectly well, as long as I get my hormones.
OK. And Hermione distributes those to you, as well?
And then you brought up another issue. Are you involved in any kind of mental health therapy?
No. Currently, I'm not involved in mental health therapy. But my organization, LaGender, we have been in collaboration with Positive Impact to service our community, knowing that they have limited budgets. So we're kind of at the bottom of the list when it comes to being trans-specific counseling that we need for this.
They can hit some of the issues, but really, still, it's a different kind of therapist that really needs to address a trans person.
Do you think it's important for the therapist to be transgender, or do you think that "as long as you're sensitive to our issues"?
Very knowledgeable and sensitive. They don't have to be transgender. Because a lot of good doctors are not transgender, but they understand what has happened in the body to cause this. And so that gives them a greater understanding of how it could be.
Other people are getting caught up with the way they were raised and the way they were taught. You know, that mindset that's been put into you, and how this society has dealt. But with a doctor, or some doctors that do this, they know that if this doesn't happen in the body, and it's happening in the mind, it's real to them. And the only way to correct it is to correct the body. Because you're not going to change that I feel and wake up in the morning and say, "Oh, Miss Ross. I feel like Miss Ross."
And I put on my clothes and my dress. And I always, everywhere I go; it's a whole feeling for me. It gives me a sense of a high self-esteem for myself. No matter who knows that I'm transgender. I don't care. I want them to know.
Let me talk to you about your activism. You've become quite the activist. And we have known each other a long time. I remember watching you kind of grow into this role as an activist. And now, you are quoted in the newspaper frequently when there are issues that affect the transgender community. Can you talk to me just a little bit about what made you become an activist?
Somebody had to do it. And somebody had to have the compassion and then have been there and lived through those issues, to be able to stand up and talk for the community that I represent. I don't represent all transgenders, you know. I try my best to, but specifically, I deal with transgenders that are really in dire, dire straits. You know, they are really on the fringes of committing suicide, and of great depression. And the young ones -- trying to prevent them from becoming HIV positive. And see the health disparities that they are talking about that are supposed to be addressed in this National HIV/AIDS Strategy.
The biggest thing as to why trans people have high infection rates is because the health disparities come into play when you are homeless and there's nowhere for you to go. You've got to go out on the street and sell your body. That's our only alternative, for a trans person. Because no one will hire you.
Talk to me about what's happening right now in Atlanta with the police department.
Oh, right now they want to banish the prostitutes. Specifically, they're targeting transgender prostitutes -- and in the area where I once worked, and was a prostitute, and was arrested. And I spoke before the city council Monday and I informed them of my history with the city, and that I had been locked up more times for not committing a crime than for the times I was committing one.
I would assume one of the things that is said is that, "If you don't want us to be on the street engaging in sex work, then hire us. So, do you have a position at the Atlanta police department? Because many of us could be your administrative assistant, or could be doing other things in a job. So, one way to help is to hire us."
I made that suggestion to the neighborhood association lady who had got this banishment together. I said, "With the resources and the business people down in midtown that pushed this banishment, to banish these people, through, couldn't you have turned that money and those resources around and created a resource center, and offered them a job, and job training? And did something besides banishment?"
So the city council decided to table it. And now they're going to take it back to a working group and see, can they come up with a better solution. I mean, if you can build a billion-dollar stadium (that we don't need) here in Atlanta, why can't you take care of our own?
That's a good point. I want to ask you about something else. Are you in a relationship?
Yes. I've been married for 22 years. And he's a good husband. And I have got three children: Spirit, Angel and Roosevelt. Those are my dogs. And then I got hundreds of adopted daughters and sons that I counsel on a daily basis.
Tell me how you met your husband.
I met him at the club. I was a showgirl and he was the DJ. And I needed my music.
And is he living with HIV, as well?
No. As a matter of fact -- and he just had his last test -- he is still negative.
That's great. So let me ask the next obvious question: How do you negotiate safer sex?
Well, we don't have to negotiate. What I say, goes.
I love it! So, let's talk about the future. What is your hope for the future for transgender people who are living with HIV, and the transgender community, in general?
I would hope that we would have a clinic here in Atlanta, a facility where we can go and get everything that we need in one place. And also to have a transitional housing program for the young transgenders that are being thrown out, homeless, on the street -- so that we can get them in school, you know, keep them in school, and get their name changes, and help them get on hormone therapy and everything, and that the hormones will actually, hopefully, through the Affordable Care Act, become available to transgender people that can't afford to get them.
Because it means a whole lot, with the hormones and transgender people. I mean, especially with the youth -- that's all they want to hear. If I ain't saying anything about no hormones, they do not want to hear too much. I have to start a conversation off about that, and about the silicone injections, and stuff like that, and get them started. Then they're pumped up and you have their attention.
And that's your sole focus, is getting into your desired gender role.
What would you say to a young transgender female who was just diagnosed with HIV? What would be a message that you would give her?
Go to the doctor. See about yourself. Love yourself. And start on a new path, with new boundaries that you set for yourself in your new life that you're starting to live. Don't look at it as a curse. Look at it as: It has opened your eyes that you should not live the way that you live in order to contract this disease, and that "I need to live a healthier lifestyle for myself, because I can today. Today, I have more opportunities that I can go about it and do it the right way, and come out and be a success story."
This transcript has been edited for clarity.