February 11, 2014
Dee Borrego is a 30-year-old woman, who since being diagnosed with HIV at the age of 20 has been on the forefront national HIV/AIDS activism. For Visual AIDS, Borrego has written an essay in which she talks about the anger and frustration she had towards her ex upon learning about her status, and how she has come to learn that HIV Criminalization is wrong for everyone -- especially people living with HIV. The essay is part of the Visual AIDS Play Smart program, an honest and straightforward approach to promote dialogue and action around harm reduction, HIV testing, PEP & PrEP, and other contemporary issues such as HIV Criminalization and No Condoms as Evidence. To learn more: Play Smart
In the hazy and heady days of my early life as a person with HIV, I was filled with a passion to fight and rail against the injustices I was experiencing. I felt angry at everyone -- at society, at my life, and especially about my ex who had infected me and condemned me to a different life than the one I had known before. My perception of HIV/AIDS was hopelessly stuck in the virulent, deathly rhetoric of the late 1980s and early 1990s of which I am a product, and I was convinced I'd be dead within a year. But most of all, I wanted some sort of karmic retribution on the man who had infected me.
My anger convinced me to search out any legal protections or ramifications of my ex's behavior. I wanted more than anything to find a way to find some sort of security in the law -- the kind of promise that's given to White America in its collective nostalgia and belief that everyone is seen and treated equally under the law and that justice is blind to everything outside the law itself.
But my uncertainty around my own mortality and future stalled any further legal pursuits against my ex, and in the end I decided against actively pursuing any charges -- instead relying on the universe to dole out its own karmic justice.
Through my own education as an activist and HIV educator, and through my own lens as a Mexican-American, Jewish transwoman raised in a majority White, Christian environment, I've found that my perception and understanding of the application of law in modern American society is hideously biased.
I have been able to experience first-hand the rejection and fear that accompanies living in a body that's very existence is a criminal act in many places on Earth. In nations like Nigeria, where recent anti-LGBT legislation has lead to mass incarceration and fears of death sentences in the world's seventh most populous nation, or in Dubai where two transgender women from Brazil currently remain stranded without their passports and awaiting trial for "imitating the opposite sex;" being transgender is a life-threateningly dangerous proposition in many parts of our globe.
Paradoxically, I consider myself fortunate to live in a state with the numerous, advantageous, and "progressive" protections of law, although many of my fellow trans* people here in MA may never be able really see full equality under these same laws, and the limits of the laws' protection that I enjoy are extremely finite. In 2011, "An Act Relative to Gender Identity" became law in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and it extends legal protection for trans* people in a limited number of areas, such as housing and public education, however, it does not cover public accommodations. Trans* people can and are still open to harassment and discrimination without the benefit of legal protection in places like hospitals, theatres, restaurants, and parks.
Across the US, numerous states have laws which criminalize sexual activity of people living with HIV. These laws were written when scientific understanding of HIV was much more limited than it is now after 30 years of formal study; it was during a time and with an understanding that HIV was a death sentence; and thus sprang these laws.
Often these laws are strictly and harshly interpreted by judges and courts who are frequently and woefully uneducated about the realities of HIV treatment and care in the 21st century, and almost none of whom are trained health professionals.
In 2014, the argument can still be made that there will be those who may try to spread the virus intentionally, but these laws simply do not achieve their goals. The laws become a self-defeating, and even dangerous, proposition to the health of the community it is intended to be protecting.
In states like Michigan, Iowa or Florida where criminalization laws are highly enforced, those who are most at-risk for HIV infection are aware that knowledge of their HIV status can be used against them in court. So they refuse to get tested for fear of prosecution and persecution.
I, for one, cannot say I blame them.
However, by delaying or refusing to get tested, thousands of Americans will not know their HIV status -- and this has many dangerous implications if the purpose of the HIV criminalization laws is to reduce the spread of HIV and the total number of people living with the virus.
As I've personally delved further into the HIV community, I've seen the depth and breadth of its disproportionate impact in communities of color. And as a person of mixed ancestries, I sit atop many intersecting identities that affect my own interpretation of the world. And the more I see of the justice system in the US, the more I'm convinced that it is not set out to ensure justice for all our citizens, but that its true intent is to maintain the status quo.
One way we can lead this conversation is through increasing awareness of HIV Criminalization. Visual AIDS, working with artists across the HIV spectrum, have created a way to talk about HIV Criminalization through their PLAY SMART trading cards. The cards use visual art to start conversations around the realities of navigating safer sex and life with and without HIV in the 21st century.
By coming together as a community of people living with and impacted by HIV, and working with those members of our government, such as Congresswomen Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), we can humanely, adequately and effectively modernize these laws by making the rational decision to repeal them entirely. I strongly believe through community organizing and people like the Congresswomen, we can lead our government and populace into the modern age of understanding what it means to live with HIV.
Devarah "Dee" Borrego, a 30-year-old transwoman living with HIV originally from Denver, Colorado, who grew up mostly in suburban Connecticut, acquired HIV at age 20; the same year she began her transition. She has lived in the Boston area since 2004, working with and at a number of different community organizations in the area, including JRI Health, TransCEND, the Boston Living Center and Cambridge Cares About AIDS.Dee is also a polyglot, speaking Spanish, French, Norwegian, American Sign Language, and a variety of other languages to various degrees. Dee was also a founding member of the Positive Women's Network USA (PWN-USA), an organization led by and for American women living with HIV to address the way HIV disproportionately affects women in the US.Dee currently serves as the national Secretary for PWN-USA.She also sits on the Boards for the HIV Prevention Justice Alliance (HIV PJA) and that of the Global Network of People Living with HIV -- North America (GNP+ NA). Dee has also been a blogger about her experiences as a transgender woman living with HIV in a variety of online spaces, including at "A Girl Like Me" and The Body.com. In 2010, Dee spoke at the Opening Plenary of the US Conference on AIDS (USCA) to discuss how HIV disproportionately affects and impacts transgender youth.Dee made her international speaking debut at a number of presentations and press conferences during AIDS 2012 held in Washington, D.C. in July 2012.
Read more Play Smart Essays:
Jim Eigo: "But today, peer-to-peer sex outreach is an endangered species. So much guy-on-guy sex originates in a phone app and gets negotiated in the ether, often with mutual assurances that each is "clean." Such terminology is incomprehensible to an aging sexual reprobate like me. I am far from clean. Often I am dirty."
Ricardo Gamboa: "Gaping tear in the time-space continuum situated in urban Central America would seem to have nothing to do with sex-positive, homoerotic trading cards promoting HIV prevention and social awareness around stigmas of HIV/AIDS. But what else has queerness been for cosmopolitan gays of the modern metropolis besides a dip into a dark hole for another kind of pleasure or wormhole."