The annual AIDSWatch summit in the District of Columbia is a chance for people from all over the country living with HIV/AIDS to visit their elected officials' offices on Capitol Hill and lobby for continued funding for the Ryan White CARE Act, Medicaid, Obamacare and other programs we rely on to stay alive. But it's also a great chance to mix and mingle with folks from dozens of states -- and to hear diverse perspectives on living with HIV.
This year's summit, in March, had an especially high percentage of transgender folks present. So, TheBody.com took the opportunity to chat with some of them to get their thoughts on how to live one's best life with HIV and how to advocate for one's community -- especially given that trans folks (and women in particular) are especially vulnerable to HIV.
"I want to advocate as much as I can for my community," says Jazelle Noel Triplett from Jackson, Mississippi, who was diagnosed in 1995. "A lot of the trans community is HIV positive, and sometimes, we have to make a decision: Are we going to take our HIV meds or our hormones?" That's why Triplett spends time advocating for insurance plans to cover gender-affirming treatment such as hormone therapy and surgery -- so trans folks don't have to make those hard choices.
Folks also talked about how wonderful it is to now know that being on HIV treatment with an undetectable viral load also means being uninfectious. "HIV care is prevention," says Keiva Lei Cadena, the linkage-to-care coordinator for the Life Foundation in Hawaii. "A lot of people don't really know that with a suppressed viral load, the risk of transmission is zero."
Adds Mia from New York City: "That's mind-blowing to me! It's joyful, because people think you have to stop having sex. No, you don't! Just go and get tested. If you're HIV positive, it's OK. There are medications -- like with diabetes or any other disease."
From the District of Columbia, Achim Jeremiah Howard was at AIDSWatch to represent for HIV-positive trans_men_. (He's the founder of #dctransmenrising ... look for it on social media.) "I try to do HIV awareness in the transmen community," he says, because transmen "are coming into themselves at a younger age now where they're not scared to express who they are." That means: "They're learning their bodies a little bit early, sexual expression, trying to figure out who they are. So, to prevent HIV we need to have seminars or forums within the high school, junior high school, because that's where it all gets started."
But let's not forget that the core mission of AIDSWatch is to urge lawmakers to support programs and services that keep us alive. "I wasn't looking to get [HIV] diagnosed," says Mia. "I was suicidal. I had nothing to live for. And I was diagnosed with 22 T cells to my name and a viral load in the millions. So, I had HIV/AIDS while I [also] had kidney stones and was homeless and majorly depressed. So, [the diagnosis] became my saving grace, because without Medicaid to help me through this process, I would have died."
Then Mia said something that summed up the fiercely resilient attitude of all the trans folks at this year's AIDSWatch: "You have the ability to flip the page," she noted, "and say, 'I'm no longer a victim: I'm a survivor'."