Obviously, our current COVID-19 crisis brings up a lot of anxiety, even PTSD, for folks living with HIV/AIDS, especially longtime survivors. All the talk of who’s spreading it and how, the daily nationwide sickness and death toll, the dread that oneself or loved ones will suddenly take a turn for the worse, and the frequent examples of government incompetence and apathy amid a crisis—let’s face it, it’s all a little too reminiscent of a certain epidemic many of us remember too well from the 1980s and 1990s.
But the flip side of all that devastation and grief is resilience and grace, and that’s what so many folks living with HIV/AIDS—nationwide and globally—are exhibiting as we hunker down through this pandemic of indefinite length and scope. TheBody spent the past few days talking to 10 people living with HIV nationwide to find out how they’re affected and why they’re scared—but also how they’re coping, adapting, and staying connected in these challenging (and isolating) times. Send your own COVID-19 stories to firstname.lastname@example.org. We want to stay on top of how the community is faring.
TheBody checked in with D.C. transgender activist Aryah Lester, who’s been relying on pork belly, her fave teen horror flicks, and lots of virtual friend-bonding to get her through the COVID-19 crisis.
Aryah Lester, deputy director of the Transgender Strategy Center, 40
Diagnosed with HIV in 2012
Tim Murphy: How have you been affected by the coronavirus crisis?
Aryah Lester: Financially, I’m fine. We’ve actually had more of an influx of work because a lot of trans-led organizations, especially Black- and Brown-led ones, are needing more assistance when it comes to organization-building and expanding their capacity, especially as a lot of things are going virtual and their clients are testing positive with COVID-19, and it’s affecting direct services. A lot of people are hitting me up personally.
I’ve been directing people to just following the CDC guidelines, which are ever-evolving. And with the Fund for Resilience and Equity that AIDS United manages, we are crafting a webinar on interpersonal and community healing during this time. Because when you look at transgender populations and how we were affected by both HIV and a lack of access to adequate gender-affirming health care services even before all of this, there’s now heightened fear and anxiety in the trans and gender-nonconforming [TGNC] community, in terms of getting regular access to hormones or engaging or continuing in HIV care.
TM: How are you getting social interaction and staying connected?
AL: I have a good support system of staff and other trans leaders around the country. We’ve been checking in on one another. Most of us have Zoom accounts, so we do our one-on-ones or maybe just three of us, or maybe bigger, where we can see and hear each other. We’ll be watching a move together via Zoom or Facebook Live. The last movie I watched was Tremors, a childhood favorite about underground monsters who kill people in a small town in Nevada.
TM: How are you getting exercise?
AL: That, I’m not getting much of. I’ve been working from home for over a year, and the work is ramping up, so most of my time is sitting in front of the computer. I have been trying to get out at least once a week to have a good walk.
TM: What kinds of foods are you eating?
AL: I did not make a big run to the grocery stores and stock up. I’ve been supporting local restaurants that are offering delivery, and tipping delivery folks at least 20% to 25%. I made a system of washing my hands right after the moment I interact with the delivery person. I’ve been ordering a mixture of Caribbean, Hispanic, soul, and African food. I love pork belly.
TM: What books, TV shows, music, etc. have been getting you through?
AL: I haven’t read any books lately. The last one was a reread of the Lord of the Rings series. I spend a lot of my viewing time on YouTube, following different YouTubers who are posting about their lives under quarantine. I love Jackie Aina, the biggest Black woman beauty star on YouTube. She’s really advocated within the makeup community to have more makeup that caters to darker skin.
TM: How scared are you, on a scale of one to 10? What specifically are you scared about?
AL: I was telling a friend the other day that, as a Black woman of trans experience, I had a lot of fear even before this in terms of leaving my house. Even walking down the street, you always have in mind the trans people we have lost, people pulling up in a car and firing shots at them. My fear was already at level red. Also, being HIV positive, I wonder what impact COVID-19 may have. People are finding it hard to make their regular appointments with their physicians. You may not have up-to-date labs to know your CD4 count, which usually gives you certainty.
TM: What is giving you hope and strength?
AL: Our communities are really coming together a lot more. We usually have conferences where we get that sense of family and fellowship, but now people are engaging more on a daily level to compensate for that. We’re finding more introverted people reaching out. That gives me hope. This is bringing us more together, if not physically. Also, the way our communities have pulled together to help those on gig-based incomes. I’ve seen a lot of raising money and having funds available for certain subsets of people who are suffering from loss of income.
TM: Any COVID-19 anecdotes?
AL: When I’ve left the house, I’ve had a couple of guys try to approach me in a romantic manner. I found that either screaming “Coronavirus!” or “Social distancing!” works. That made them go off quickly. So it’s a good deterrent for those unwanted advances.