Speaking Out About HIV in Transgender Communities
An Interview With Dee Borrego -- Part of the Series This Positive Life
April 1, 2011
So now were you ever able to talk to the person, the partner, who you got HIV from? Because it sounds like you were in a relationship and you found out that person was positive.
So did you ever reconnect with that person or tell that person about your diagnosis? How did that go?
Reconnecting with the person who infected me was a complicated process. Our relationship had been rather brief, but very intense. We dated for approximately six weeks, during which time he had been using a lot of drugs. I had also been using drugs at the time. So it was a bad scene, for lack of a better or clearer term.
About six weeks into the relationship he disclosed to me as being HIV positive, after we had been having sex for most of the relationship, and had not been using condoms. So I freaked out, and we ended up breaking up over some other issues unrelated to his HIV diagnosis.
He had claimed at the time that he had just received his HIV diagnosis while we were together, but had withheld it from me because he was afraid I would dump him over something like this. I told him I could deal with being in a relationship with an HIV-positive person, but he had told me he was going to stop using drugs. And I went away for four days and came back, and he was using more than ever. So this was the root cause of our breakup, to be honest.
I didn't see him after the breakup because it was, unfortunately, violent. He pulled a knife on me and became very threatening. The police were involved. And a restraining order was placed on him afterwards. He was due in court unfortunately -- well, not necessarily unfortunately -- but he was due in court on an unrelated matter about a month and a half after he and I broke up. So I decided to just let sleeping dogs lie. He actually did end up in jail for this unrelated matter to me, for about a year and a half.
Since that time, I've seen him once. I ran into him in public here in Boston one time. It was very awkward. We didn't really have much to say. I was very, very mad at him for a very long time. I mean, it's really hard to forgive someone who's changed your life with callous disregard.
I hear that. So now how do you decide nowadays -- and even back then, closer to the time of your diagnosis -- how do you decide when or whether to disclose your status to somebody?
Well, when choosing to disclose, it's a really delicate and important issue that I think all HIV-positive people have to face. For me it's very dependent on the situation, as to exactly when I will disclose with someone.
"It's an act of claiming your own voice and saying, 'I'm here, and I'm just as valid as you are. My opinions matter just as much as yours. My vote matters just as much as yours. My money is worth just as much as your money is worth.'"
I think disclosure is really important. I think if we, as HIV-positive people, don't share our voices and let it be known that we're here, the community isn't going to keep record of us. They're not going to look out for us. They'll allow us to become an invisible minority. The only way that people know about HIV, and how to protect themselves from HIV, and how to help those living with it, is if they know people with it. So I think disclosing feeds into activism, in some ways, that every time you disclose it's an act of activism. It's an act of claiming your own voice and saying, "I'm here, and I'm just as valid as you are. My opinions matter just as much as yours. My vote matters just as much as yours. My money is worth just as much as your money is worth."
I think it's really important that we, as HIV-positive people, remember that power that we hold to educate those who aren't HIV positive, or even those who are. By disclosing to our partners, and to our friends, and to our family, I think it can be a really powerful way to keep activism and keep the spirit of fighting HIV alive. Because I definitely think in the year 2011, HIV activism has certainly waned from what it once was, back in the '80s, or even in the '90s, to a point.
What are some of your experiences with activism? How did you first start getting involved with the HIV community on a sort of more activist level?
I actually got involved with the HIV community as an activist rather quickly. It wasn't entirely a planned move. It just sort of happened. Right after my diagnosis was the 25th anniversary of the HIV virus, in 2006. So my therapists and my case manager had found an opportunity to make a short film for MTV about living with HIV. So I decided to do that. They did select portions of it that were aired, which was very cool, to be 22 and be, like, "Oh, that's me on MTV!" Even though it was only like 30 seconds, but still.
So that was the first foray I did into it. I'd had a lot of experience doing public speaking when I was younger. I had had a lot of experience in theater and performance art, so I feel very comfortable in that arena. I just felt like I have a voice, and this is part of the plan, and this is part of my journey, and part of my path is to use the voice and the strength that I have to go out and talk and to educate people about HIV.
So, pretty quickly after I was diagnosed, I had done that film. And then after that film, I took a little bit of a break from activism. I was just doing things here, around Boston, more local things, being involved with varying organizations here.
And then in 2008, I was invited to join the Positive Women's Network [PWN] . I was actually one of the founding members of the PWN at the convening in San Francisco, where about 30 women from across the U.S. gathered to form an organization by and for HIV-positive women that does some really wonderful work.
So I went there and I've done some work with them. After that, I actually started working in HIV services as a trainer, and as -- I'm trying to remember the exact title -- I think the title was client advocate. I would educate people on the importance of meds and taking your meds correctly.
Then I forayed into working with the Positive Justice Project in New York, in the last six months or so, working on decriminalization of HIV laws throughout the U.S. and internationally. And in September of 2010 I was selected to speak at the U.S. Conference on HIV/AIDS,in Orlando, Florida, which was a huge honor. The focus was on youth, and I was the transgender youth selected from across the nation to speak and represent my community on a national stage. So it was a great honor and a great opportunity to really educate people about the issues facing transgender people around HIV.
"I feel that, as a transgender person who's able to stand up and speak openly and publicly about these issues, I really feel that it's my duty to do so."
There's no hard data around transgender people and HIV in this country. There are varying studies from varying cities, like Boston, San Francisco and Seattle, I believe. And I believe Houston, as well, has a study out. I'm not certain on that, though.
Based on what limited data we have, the belief is that the prevalence of HIV in the trans community might be as high as 75 percent. So that's a very, very large portion of the community. And within even the trans community it goes higher within ethnic minorities. Like, the African-American community has even higher prevalence rates, based on what limited studies are available.
So HIV and transgender people are really intertwined in this country, for many reasons. I feel that, as a transgender person who's able to stand up and speak openly and publicly about these issues, I really feel that it's my duty to do so.
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