The annual AIDSWatch event, taking place on April 1 and April 2 in Washington, D.C., brings together over 500 advocates from across the country to Capitol Hill. The occasion is designed to put the faces of people living with HIV and their allies in direct contact with members of Congress, showing the diversity of our community and informing national leaders what is needed on a practical level to care for people living with HIV and to stop the HIV epidemic.
Some members of our diverse community have had to fight like hell to get a seat at the table.
"A few years ago, we disrupted the AIDSWatch plenary," said Arianna Inurritegui-Lint, founder of Arianna's Center in Fort Lauderdale and head of the South Florida Chapter of the TransLatin@ Coalition. "We [members of the trans community] took to the stage to demand that the transgender community and especially trans people of color have representation. There's a terrible discrepancy when it comes to trans people in housing, in health care, in employment opportunity."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people in the transgender community are among the most vulnerable when it comes to HIV risk in the U.S. According to the CDC website, around a quarter of transgender women are living with HIV, and more than half of black/African-American transgender women are living with HIV. Moreover, the percentage of transgender people who received a new HIV diagnosis in 2015 was more than three times the national average. Almost half of the newly diagnosed transgender people between 2009 and 2014 lived in the South.
"We need to make sure to protect the expansion of Medicare and Medicaid, to include trans persons in protecting against gender discrimination, to include hormone therapy in ADAP [the AIDS Drug Assistance Program]," Inurritegui-Lint said.
Alex Smith, senior policy manager at AIDS United, said that reaching out to be inclusive of the trans community has become a priority for AIDSWatch. "We've really done a lot to make sure that the voices and concerns of the trans community are heard, and that they are included in the conversation," he said.
AIDS United has established the Transgender Leadership Initiative, which is designed to bolster trans communities across the country by developing leadership on the grassroots level. "Through our partner organizations and the Trans Leadership Initiative, we reached out specifically to award scholarships to the trans community for AIDSWatch this year," he said. Out of the 50 scholarships for 2019, eight went to members of the trans community.
Alabama's Katie Willingham will be attending her first AIDSWatch this year with support from The Well Project. "In Alabama, as far as the transgender community, or even the LGBT community, there are no protections at all, let alone HIV-related," she said. For Willingham, who is the community co-chair of the HIV Prevention and Care Group for the Alabama Department of Public Health and is a policy fellow with the Positive Women's Network-USA, a big issue is simply that of gender identity. "In Alabama, you can't change your gender marker on your ID, your driver's license, or anything without proof of surgery," she said, "and that's something that needs to be changed."
For Achim Howard, the inclusion of trans men in the conversation is paramount. "I feel like there's a lot of spotlight shown on trans women more than the specifics of trans men," he observed. "I feel like it's changing, though. It's a dream come true to see trans men sitting there at the table with other people who are in a community making a difference." Howard will be attending AIDSWatch as a representative from New Orleans. "Normally I'd be with D.C., but I'm moving to New Orleans, so I'm going to be talking to the New Orleans representatives this year," he said. Howard has experienced firsthand how difficult it can be as a trans man to access health care in this country. "I lost my job in August," he explained, "and I saw for the first time what it was like to have to get health care. I went online to apply for Medicaid, and they said that I wasn't a person!" He had help applying online through a local organization, but the process stalled and he had to apply in person. "They were just so rude, and it was like they weren't even trying to help me. They finally did get it right, but I know the challenges, you know?"
AIDSWatch is a vital event for those of us at the front lines of the HIV fight to be seen and heard on a national level. As Howard said, "We have to make sure that [everyone] speaks out for themselves and lets their voices be heard, because their voices are valuable and we need them. We have to change the legislation some kind of way so that the data will be represented for not just one sector of people, but for all people."