In late June, the LGBTQ-rights nonprofit Lambda Legal announced that it was suing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for instituting a rule that excludes transgender people from health care discrimination protection as written into the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare). The Trump administration’s HHS rule basically tells health providers that they are free to turn away trans folks, who have long faced challenges when it comes to health care access, coverage, and discrimination.
Only a few days prior to the lawsuit, the Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal to discriminate against LGBTQ people in the workplace and elsewhere. Then, on Aug. 17, a federal judge temporarily blocked the Trump rule from going into effect, saying that it appeared to be incompatible with the recent Supreme Court ruling.
Despite these encouraging developments, Lambda continues to pursue its own challenge to the rule. “While HHS’s health care discrimination rule cannot change the law, it creates chaos and confusion where there was once clarity about the right of everyone in our communities, and specifically transgender people, to receive health care free of discrimination,” said Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, senior attorney and health care strategist for Lambda Legal. “Lambda Legal, a broad coalition of LGBTQ groups, and the people our clients serve say ‘enough’ to the incessant attacks from the very agency charged with protecting their health and well-being.”
The lawsuit is filed on behalf of several groups, including Washington, D.C.’s LGBTQ-serving Whitman-Walker Health and the TransLatin@ Coalition and its members, including leaders of affiliated organizations like Arianna’s Center in Florida. In fact, Arianna Inurritegui-Lint, a Peru-born trans woman living with HIV who is the founder of Arianna’s Center, submitted testimony in the case, which read in part: “I am very concerned about the negative impacts the Revised Rule will have on transgender, gender nonconforming, and Latinx people. I fear that, as a result of the Revised Rule, I will experience even more discrimination by health care providers and insurers because of my sex, transgender status, national origin, disability, LEP [limited English proficiency] status, or some combination of these characteristics.”
TheBody talked with Inurritegui-Lint about her extraordinary life’s journey, why she’s passionate about helping other trans Latinas in Florida living with or without HIV, and why she joined the lawsuit.
Tim Murphy: Hi there, Arianna! Thanks for taking some time to talk to us today. So, you are in Fort Lauderdale, correct?
Arianna Inurritegui-Lint: Yes, but Arianna’s Center also services Miami, West Palm Beach, and, as of this year, we have an office in Puerto Rico that has partnered with the University of Puerto Rico.
TM: Ah, OK. How have you been dealing with the COVID era?
AIL: Well, I didn’t have COVID, but I got Bell’s palsy [facial paralysis] instead. Now I’m recovered, but those days were difficult because, in the middle of COVID, I was in the E.R. and meeting with doctors.
TM: Glad you’re recovered. Tell us about Arianna’s Center.
AIL: I founded it in 2015. The mission is to educate and serve vulnerable transgender Latinas who are doing sex work for survival, who are homeless, who’ve been incarcerated in prison or ICE centers and have been released. We offer two weeks of post-incarceration emergency housing for HIV-positive transgender women, while we help connect them to Ryan White [CARE Act] services with doctors and clinics, including the AIDS Healthcare Foundation [AHF] and Care Resource. We empower trans women living with HIV to advocate for themselves. And right before the COVID pandemic, we traveled to Tallahassee, the state capital, to do the first transgender lobbying day. Different state reps met with us trans women of color and heard our voices.
We’ve been advocating for the modernization of Florida’s HIV criminalization laws [which can send someone to jail for not disclosing to sex partners that they have HIV] to reflect U=U, the fact that someone with HIV on meds who is undetectable on labs is also untransmittable, not able to transmit the virus sexually. I’m a U=U ambassador. We’ve been working on that with state Sen. Jason Pizzo and with the state health department, which two months ago finally signed the U=U consensus statement.
TM: That’s awesome, Arianna. Where does your funding come from?
AIL: I started Arianna’s Center from scratch in 2015, but in the past two years, we’ve started getting funding from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the Miami Foundation, and from Gilead—my best friend! Gilead is a big believer in my work, especially through their COMPASS Initiative for southern states. AIDS United and Borealis Philanthropy also help. We hope to get more support, because now, in the COVID era, it’s very difficult to start new programs.
TM: What have been the challenges facing the Florida trans Latina population during COVID?
AIL: The most difficult thing is getting tested for COVID. The trans girls don’t have information about it, and sometimes the testing sites are not trained to be trans-friendly. Many of the trans women are homeless, living with HIV, without a job or income. Many are undocumented, so access to many federal assistance programs is impossible. We have five trans folks who were released from ICE with no identification whatsoever, so we have to support them because they don’t have Social Security checks. Their only option is to become a sex worker, and health care access for them is very difficult.
TM: Tell us a little of your personal story.
AIL: I was born in Lima, Peru, in 1972 and got my degrees in law and political science there. I moved to New York around 1999 and became an escort for two years to support myself while I got my Peru education accredited in the U.S. After 9/11, I had enough savings to put a down payment on a house in Orlando in 2002. I’d said to myself, “Why not move to Florida—the weather is paradise!”
TM: And then you opened a construction business in Florida?
AIL: Yes. No matter if you’re gay, trans, Black, white, you can survive if you’re smart, and I’m very smart. It was a commercial construction company I started with my husband, whom I met in Florida, and his family. He actually died last year, but we’d separated in 2013, which is when I moved to South Florida. In Orlando, I’d also worked at the department of health, which is where I found out I had HIV in 2007 or 2008.
TM: What was your reaction to that news?
AIL: The stigma was worse than it is now. But the diagnosis actually ended up setting me on my current career, first volunteering for the health department, then becoming a peer educator, then becoming one of the people who goes to your house when you test positive for HIV or STD [to urge you to notify sexual partners and to connect to care, treatment, and services]. Then in 2013, I was hired by a nonprofit called SunServe to bring direct services to trans folks. I was there until 2015, and I liked it. When I first tested positive, I was scared I was going to get sick all the time, but actually, becoming HIV positive gave me the opportunity to show my work talents in the U.S. as I had in my own country.
TM: So how did that lead to starting Arianna’s Center?
AIL: I saw that in cosmopolitan cities like New York, LA, or San Francisco, you had specialty transgender clinics. But there was no such thing in South Florida. And the biggest challenge starting the center was that people don’t believe in you just because you’re transgender. That’s the truth. But I’m different. Now, if you are trans in South Florida, or if your agency wants to work with trans people, Arianna’s Center is the first resource they turn to.
TM: You must be proud.
AIL: Yes. Being openly HIV positive, I’ve broken a lot of stigma. I give the example that, if you are transgender, if you have a mission and develop it, you can be happy.
TM: Yes. So why did you give testimony in the lawsuit against HHS’ rule that allows health providers to discriminate against trans people?
AIL: For many years, trans people have not been at the table and haven’t counted, especially in South Florida. We want equal access to health care. We’re just asking for what everyone else has. It’s very important, because South Florida still has the highest rates of new HIV cases nationwide. As a trans person and a former lawyer, I think access to health care is a human right. So we have to change this HHS rule.
TM: What has a typical day been like for you in the COVID era? You are mostly working from home, yes?
AIL: Yes. I wake up around 5 a.m. and look at my emails. Then for breakfast I follow my mother’s guidance from when I was little and have oatmeal with bananas, sometimes eggs or cheese. Then I get in front of my computer and start doing emails and calling clients, especially the ones who do sex work all night and are just getting home. I actually live next door to the condo that is the safe house where we place the girls for two weeks when they come out of prison or ICE detention, so sometimes clients meet me there. Sometimes I have online trainings, too.
Sometimes I have time to cook. I’ve definitely developed my cooking skills in this pandemic. Today, I’m eating arroz con pollo and mashed potato with avocado and chicken, Peruvian food. I’ll finish working around 8 or 9 p.m., then take a shower and watch old Miss Universe pageants.
TM: Has Miss Peru ever won?
AIL: Yes, Gladys Zender won in 1957, and in 2019 one of the top 10 finalists was Miss Peru. I like the questions part of the pageant the most. That’s when you see the girls’ real beauty. No matter your background, if you have education, you can have a good outcome in life.
TM: Speaking of outcomes, what are your goals over the next five years?
AIL: Developing the first building totally devoted to trans individuals in South Florida, offering everything from primary care to housing to HIV care to hormone therapy and surgery. Arianna’s Center currently is just an office but not a full clinic with a pharmacy, doctors, legal support, social support.
TM: You’ll still call it Arianna’s Center?
AIL: Of course!