Tiommi Luckett, HIV Advocate: Changing Lives for Transgender Women in the South

Tiommi Luckett

Tiommi Luckett has spent a lifetime forging her own path and showing great resilience in the face of challenges that might defeat most people. She described herself to HRC as "just a little country trans girl from Helena, Arkansas," a description that belies her sophistication and confidence as an HIV prevention advocate.

"It was hard," Tiommi said of her childhood. "I grew up with seven siblings. The first time I was called out of my name was by my dad. The first time I was called 'gay' was by my dad. I had to ask my mom what a 'fag' was."

High school was even harder for Tiommi, but she found solace in books.

"I had no role models," she recalled. "Everything I have gone through, I had to go through by myself because there was nobody in my family like me, nobody in my school like me. I didn't see anyone in my church like me. I didn't know any other trans women until last year, and even then, they didn't look like me -- they were not the same race."

Despite this isolation, Tiommi persevered. "Whatever came at me that tried to break me, I used it and I gained strength from it," she said. "I would not be defeated. I don't have a defeatist attitude. You may get me down, but I know who I am and whose I am."

In 2012, Tiommi learned that she was HIV-positive. She then lived in the larger city of Little Rock, but Tiommi had no idea where to find the resources and support she needed after her diagnosis. But that didn't stop her.

"Everything I found out about HIV and AIDS I had to research myself, so my advocacy came from that experience," she explained. "I didn't want anyone else to have to feel like I felt, so if I could pull resources together to make it easier for the people who came after me, that's what I would do. It's a very scary feeling -- to think that you're going to die, that you have no resources."

For Tiommi and other transgender women of color living with HIV, particularly those who live in the South, finding resources and health care that is respectful and culturally competent can be incredibly difficult, if not impossible. According to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 21 percent of Black transgender respondents reported being refused medical care outright because of bias, and 34 percent said that they had postponed necessary medical care because they feared discrimination.

In her work as part of the Arkansas HIV Prevention Planning Group and the Arkansas Department of Health, Tiommi sees how these problems play out over and over again. From transgender women going uncounted in data collection on HIV to inaccurate information about HIV transmission, the problems are clear.

"Any of these publicly funded organizations like the Arkansas Department of Health have to use certain language," she explained. "You can't just tell people that you get HIV from 'bodily fluids' -- sweat is a bodily fluid, tears are a bodily fluid. You are putting out the wrong information. Tell people what they need to hear -- you can get HIV through semen, through vaginal fluid, through breast milk, sharing dirty needles and through blood transfusions performed outside the United States. Tell people what they need to know. It's important to get the right information out there."

The lack of laws or policies to protect transgender people from discrimination often create dangerous and desperate situations for transgender people, who already suffer disproportionately high rates of homelessness, poverty and unemployment.

"I hate to say it, but what is there for a trans woman of color to do but take to the streets?" Tiommi said, referencing the need for many trans women of color to engage in survival sex work. "This discrimination is in effect increasing HIV rates -- because if I'm on the street and this is how I'm making money to keep a roof over my head, if the client says, 'Hey, if we don't use a condom, I'll pay you $200 more.' I need that money."

Situations like the one Tiommi described place transgender women at much higher risk for contracting HIV than any other group in the LGBT community. A recent report by AmFar concluded, "trans women are 49 times more likely to be living with HIV than the general population." In the U.S., 21.6 percent of transgender women are living with HIV, and southern states like Arkansas bear the heaviest burden of the epidemic while often having the least prevention and care resources for people living with HIV and those at risk.

For Tiommi, changing this dire situation, as well as challenging the prejudices that marginalize her and other transgender women of color, are what motivate her as an HIV prevention advocate.

"I love my community," she said with a hint of frustration, "but the thing that keeps me going is that I know just as many people in my community are wishing me well, that same number or more are waiting for me to fall because I've been in the spotlight. I do this work as a personal testament to myself, that whatever hasn't killed me has made me stronger. I'm getting better each day -- and while you're talking about me behind my back, keep watching how God continues to bless me."

"I have been in places I never thought I would be," she said. "I never thought I'd be talking to senators and representatives and meeting with people on the Hill. I never would have thought that in a million years. I knew I had the capability and the capacity to do it, but to actually be a part of it has been one of the most rewarding things I've ever done. Just to be there for other people. Even when I was addicted to alcohol and drugs and then I got clean and sober, I knew that everything I overcame was not really about me, but for the person who came after me so that I can be a testament to them that I've already been there and survived that, and they can too."

For more information on the transgender community and HIV, check out our issue brief, Transgender People and HIV: What We Know.

Beth Sherouse is an ACLS public fellow and the HRC senior content manager.

HRC is committed, through a collective effort, to ending the HIV and AIDS epidemic and helping secure the health and well-being of people living with HIV, particularly LGBT individuals. To that end, HRC is proud to present a this blog series as part of our #BeInTheKnow campaign -- calling attention to the impact of HIV and AIDS on the LGBT community and amplifying the voices of those most affected by the epidemic.