When Tiommi Luckett went to her first Positively Trans' national advisory board meeting in 2015, she was nervous. "Out of her mind" nervous, she said.
As a black transgender woman living with HIV, Luckett has faced a fair amount of adversity. Most of her life had been a fight against stigma, discrimination, trauma and violence. Determined to change this tide, she began to do advocacy work within her community. But joining the board of Positively Trans was a step in her career Luckett didn't imagine at the time.
"I was like, 'How did I even end up here,'" she told TheBody.com.
Luckett found herself at that meeting because of Cecilia Chung, the founder and director of Positively Trans, the Transgender Law Center's (TLC) groundbreaking project serving the needs of transgender people living with HIV. Chung, she said, approached her "the very first time I opened my mouth into a public place about being a trans women living with HIV."
Chung, who serves as TLC's senior strategist, developed Positively Trans to address the stigma and systemic disparities that continue to drive high HIV rates and poor health outcomes among transgender people. The constituent-led project, supported by a grant from the Elton John AIDS Foundation, focuses on research, policy and legal advocacy, education and leadership building to help empower transgender women of color and other trans people living with HIV.
In that first meeting, Luckett soon realized that she and her fellow National Advisory Board members had important roles to play in achieving Positively Trans' mission and fulfilling its vision. The program is the first of its kind to serve the needs of women like her: Women who are living their truth despite the trauma and pain. She thought that she and her peers could share their narratives and lived experiences to galvanize their community and bring progress.
So did Chung, Luckett said. "She believed that if I was a member of Positively Trans that I would really help affect change in the world," she told TheBody.com. "I believed her when she said it."
Why Positively Trans Is Needed
Transgender people are among the populations most at risk for HIV infection. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), among newly reported HIV diagnoses in 2013, the percentage of trans people was more than three times the national average. And transgender people of color are the most vulnerable group. Between 2009 and 2014, black trans women accounted for 51% of HIV diagnoses https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/group/gender/transgender/ among transgender women, while Latinas made up 29%, according to the CDC. Among trans men, the percentages were 58% and 15%, respectively.
Research has shown that transgender and gender nonconforming people living with HIV encounter a confluence of barriers that threaten their health and livelihoods. They face stigma and rejection for living their truth, which can harm their mental health and housing insecurity. They experience discrimination at work and in school, which can put their economic wellbeing at risk. They lack access to comprehensive health care and often deal with doctors who are either insensitive, untrained in transgender care or both. And transgender people are more likely to be victims of violence: According to Positively Trans' 2017 needs assessment report, 44% of transgender people said they had been physically assaulted on the street in the past year because of their gender identity, while 49% reported being survivors of sexual assault.
Although advocacy organizations have been established to help transgender people, not many serve those living with HIV. Chung, a renowned civil rights leader and activist, started Positively Trans to fill that void.
"This kind of intentional support is first and foremost the most unprecedented part," she said. "We are highlighting the strength of the community. At the same time, we want to honor individual stories and resilience."
The original goal for its first year, Chung said, was to put an advisory board together and develop a needs assessment survey for transgender and gender nonconforming people living with HIV. But, as Positively Trans grew, so did its ambitions. The project began to offer more leadership support and development to help transgender people living with HIV, particular trans women of color, Chung said. This has allowed the project to mobilize more people and develop effective strategies to tackle the issues affecting the trans population.
Since its inception, Positively Trans has bolstered the transgender and gender nonconforming people living with HIV across the country and around the globe through networking, storytelling, mentorship and coaching. The pioneering program has also had a presence at national and international HIV/AIDS conferences, spearheaded workshops and trainings, extended resources to those in need and built up a strong network of trans people of color living with HIV.
"I love what we do," said advisory board member Jada Cardona, a New Orleans-based activist and the first openly transgender person to work for the state of Louisiana. "Positively Trans has taken all of its members to a different level of advocacy."
This year so far has seen exciting new developments for Positively Trans. In March, Positively Trans held its first national training with 12 transgender women of color living with HIV as a partner organization of the Building Leaders of Color Living with HIV (BLOC) program, an initiative of the National Minority AIDS Council. As part of this three-year collaborative partnership, the project will organize two more trainings over the next two years and is expected to train about 50 trans women of color in total.
Positively Trans has also taken part this year in BLOC's first regional leadership training for people of color living with HIV, visited a digital storytelling workshop to learn effective storytelling techniques and video editing skills, and attended AIDSWatch to build on advocacy and networking. The project is also in the process of developing regional chapters throughout the South and Midwest.
"It has been a very inspiring and sobering process," Chung told TheBody.com. "There are a lot of needs that are still not met, but communities continue to show their resilience and resourcefulness in navigating around some of these hurdles."
Professional Growth, Personal Gain
Being able to lift up other transgender women living with HIV as part of Positively Trans has been a humbling experience, advisory board member Octavia Lewis said. "It was amazing to be able to share space with them and hear them speak their narrative," she told TheBody.com, "and to live in their truth unapologetically."
It's a sentiment shared by fellow board member Arianna Lint, CEO of her own agency, Arianna's Center. "It's an amazing experience to be part of the history," Lint said.
Lewis, Lint and the advisory board members who spoke with TheBody.com said that working with Positively Trans had brought them tremendous personal and professional success. The project has opened them to other career opportunities, forming connections, promoting their advocacy work and discovering themselves.
For Luckett, it's given her a community -- a family -- at the time she needed one most. "I [now] have a national network of people living with HIV who respect the work that I have put into this because I said 'yes' to being a part of the Positively Trans National Advisory Board," said Luckett, who is now based in Philadelphia.
Positively Trans has also helped the advisory board members hone their networking, leadership and collaborative skills. Lewis, who is based in New York, said being involved with the project has taught her how to work better with advocates, executives and officials. "The last couple of years I've been out front, vocal, outspoken, but now I want to be at the table when policies are being implemented," she told TheBody.com. "It has taught me that compromising does not mean denying."
Above all else, though, Positively Trans has taught the advisory board members how to stand in their truth. All members who spoke with TheBody.com said that working on the board and alongside Chung had helped them to be more open and honest about their identities, their statuses and their lives.
"Positively Trans has helped me embrace the fact that I have HIV, so much so that I'm national now -- and international -- with it," Cardona said with a laugh. "I'm OK, and I've learned that I'll be OK."