The Body Covers: The 2001 National Conference on African Americans and AIDS
Panel: Focus on Women with Female Partners
February 20, 2001
This panel was convened to discuss African American women who partner with women and their place in the HIV epidemic.
Rena Boss-Victoria opened the session with a poignant poem about the death of the strong black woman. It struck home to each African American woman in the audience, creating a bond among the panel and the female audience members, lesbian and heterosexual alike.
The essence of the ensuing message was the paradox of the stigma surrounding female homosexuality, together with the lack of acknowledgement of lesbians as a group at risk for HIV. She stressed the lack of research on issues pertaining to lesbian women and HIV. Of the existing limited research, data are questionable since they are based on information obtained from self-identified lesbians, and data as basic as the actual incidence of HIV in this group remain unknown. The few anecdotal reports on probable HIV transmission between women and female partners (based on subjects' historical lack of alternative exposure) do little to advance knowledge and public awareness of women who partner with women and HIV. This stigma and neglect both impede HIV prevention efforts among lesbian women.
Claire Griffin continued in the same vein, summing up the essence of the available information on woman-to-woman transmission of HIV as follows: that while it is possible, it is inefficient. She lamented the singular lack of resources for the prevention of HIV among the lesbian community, and noted that women who partner with women continue to engage in high-risk behaviors, contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and dying in silence. She concluded by urging the scientific community to conduct research on the transmission of HIV and other STDs among women who partner with women.
Janine Elise Quinlan summed up her message eloquently in her opening statement, "there is no healing in silence." She described the lesbian population as an existing population overlooked and understudied -- not a new population on the rise as some people may think. She noted a high prevalence of molestation and incest among this population, and reported a reluctance to seek primary health care due to a history of negative experiences. She stressed the importance of unity of the lesbian community in the fight against HIV, and the need for support from the larger community to the same end.
Dr. Anderson agreed with her fellow panelists about the silence surrounding female-to-female transmission of HIV, despite the fact that an estimated 10% of all women in the U.S. partner with other women. Many lesbian women are actually classified as bisexual or heterosexual. Although statistics show lower rates of HIV transmission among women, increases in genital tract HIV RNA, such as seen with STDs and the common bacterial vaginosis, present the potential for enhanced transmission. She underscored the insensitivity of the health care system to needs of women who partner with women by citing the example of the very frequently asked question "what are you using for birth control?" Because of these and other reasons, lesbian women are less likely to seek care. She urged health care workers to reevaluate existing assumptions such as is reflected in this single question, and to strive to make the health care experience less traumatic for women who partner with women.
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