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The Transgender Community at the World AIDS Conference

September/October 2000

The XIII International Conference on HIV/AIDS was held in July in Durban, South Africa, in the Kwa-Zulu Natal province. The theme of the AIDS Conference was "Breaking the Silence." In the spirit of this metaphor, the Community Indaba pre-conference session on Transgenders and Sexual Health, which I facilitated, was an important opportunity for the global transgender community to begin to find a voice to speak out about all the transgender individuals who die in silence from HIV/AIDS, die in silence because of barriers to health care and education, and die in silence from social and psychological pressures to renounce the legitimate expression of their gender identity.

At the Indaba, one of the panelists was a 40-year-old transsexual who is also HIV-positive. Jacqueline described how Brazilian STD prevention campaigns have been targeted towards sex workers for many years; for this reason, many transgender sexual practices have been recognized in current HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns produced by the government and community organizations. However, there is little public understanding of the trans phenomenon -- even within the gay community. The Brazilian government has adopted a very limited acceptance of trans people. Sex reassignment surgery is provided free by the government, but only on the limited basis of engaging in a scientific study of transsexuality; consequently, there is a long waiting list. However, Brazilian law does not permit a name or sex change on any official identification documents, even after a person undergoes reassignment surgery.

Another Indaba panelist was Khartini, a transsexual from Malaysia and a senior manager with their Pink Triangle Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender (GLBT) health and counseling organization. She recently conducted the first ever survey of attitudes and knowledge about HIV/AIDS among Malaysian transsexuals. As she described her own personal experience, she finds general public acceptance of transgender people in the Malaysian population, but very strong condemnation among segments of their Muslim religious community. After her talk, a member of the audience described a very different, and positive, degree of acceptance among the Muslim religious community in Turkey.

After the Indaba, I met Peter, a young trans person from Zimbabwe, who reported that trans individuals are regularly put in jail and "become property of the government." Most trans hide in isolation because of the harsh punishment if they are found out. They are called Chingetanai, a Zimbabwean word which translates as "queens." Zimbabwe also suffers from economic and political isolation, making it difficult for "outsiders" to reach those people in need.

I am a proud African American transgender sister who is advocating for the rights of transgender people. It is ironic that the devastation of HIV/AIDS, and the world wide response to this catastrophe, has not only shaped my life but also provided the occasion for me to travel to my "motherland," the continent of my origin. My interest in the personal and social consequences of the African slave trade colored my visit with feelings of joy and inspiration at standing on the soil where my ancestors may have stood, feelings of great sadness at the historical disruptions of slavery and apartheid, and feelings of hope for the future after meeting African sisters and brothers of all ethnicities and cultural backgrounds and observing their great spirit and determination. I am personally committed to strengthening the international contacts I made during this journey.

Lorraine Sade-Baskerville is founder and executive director of transGenesis, in Chicago. For more information, contact or call (800) 805-4052.

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This article was provided by Positively Aware. It is a part of the publication Positively Aware. Visit Positively Aware's website to find out more about the publication.
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