At last year's International AIDS Conference in Toronto, women's issues in the context of HIV and AIDS were prominently seen and heard. "We need to put the power to prevent HIV in the hands of women," stated Bill Gates at the opening ceremony, followed by a fierce round of applause. Throughout the conference, female-initiated forms of prevention, such as microbicides, female condoms, and pre-exposure prophylaxis gained widespread publicity. Over 1,000 people attended a rally demanding action for women and girls. It appeared that the feminization of the HIV pandemic was finally being grasped by the global arena.
Twenty-six years into the HIV pandemic, women account for nearly 80 percent of new HIV infections in young people, and women have now surpassed the number of men worldwide living with HIV. While female-controlled modes of HIV prevention such as microbicides and pre-exposure prophylaxis are still undergoing clinical trials, the reality remains that there is still less than one female condom available each year to every sexually active person in need of one. Despite this, nearly half of U.S. Congressional representatives don't believe access to low-cost contraceptives is an important component in the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) funding, as indicated in their recent support of amendments which keep abstinence-until-marriage earmarks in U.S. foreign aid. Although billions of dollars are poured into HIV prevention and AIDS relief each year, it seems very little of the funding is actually reaching the people in most need of it.
The first-ever International Women's Summit on Women's Leadership and HIV and AIDS, co-hosted by the World YWCA and YWCA of Kenya, will open on July 5 in Nairobi, Kenya. Bringing together leaders such as UNAIDS Executive Director Dr. Peter Piot, WHO Director General Dr. Margaret Chan, celebrities, activists, and community women, the summit will highlight the difference women's leadership is making on HIV and AIDS, offer an exchange of ideas on programs which are taking place around the world, and demand accountability for future resources to address the feminization of the pandemic.
The summit will begin with a forum exclusively for HIV positive women on July 4, expected to draw 500 women. The larger event will feature workshops and breakout sessions on a variety of topics including women's rights, investing more resources for women, addressing violence against women in the context of HIV and AIDS, women and religion, and ensuring women's representation in decision making. A plenary session on the final day of the summit is called "If Women Really Matter, Where's the Leadership and the Money?"
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Coincidentally, the final day of the summit, July 7, 2007, also represents the mid-point of meeting the Millennium Development Goals. So how are we doing on Goal #3: Promoting Gender Equality and Empowering Women and Goal #7: Combating HIV and AIDS and other diseases? Will the summit itself be instrumental in bringing women's issues in the context of HIV to international attention? Are we at a turning point in recognizing that women's specific needs matter and need to be addressed? I am optimistic, but as they say in Kenya, polepole—slowly, slowly—we will get there. The question remains—will we get there in time?
I met Juanita Williams in the mid-1980s. She was the first client at SisterLove, the then-new Atlanta nonprofit I founded for women living with AIDS.
June 27 is National HIV Testing Day, and many women will be tested during the observance. But when I met Williams, HIV was a growing reality in our communities, and women were not even recognized as a population at risk for HIV at that time.
This lack of understanding was reflected in women’s experiences when seeking care. Williams’ attempt to get a tubal ligation had been met with fear, ignorance, and hostility from a medical team who informed her she had AIDS. Not only did they refuse to provide her the medical procedure, the hospital staff promptly ushered her down the back staircase and out the door. Williams was left without information or counseling for what was devastating news.
A Black woman who grew up in Syracuse, New York, she had moved to her family’s home state of South Carolina. Her first major decision after her diagnosis was to leave South Carolina and move to Atlanta, where she believed she would get better treatment and support. She was right, and still, it wasn’t easy—not then and not now. Even today, Williams says, “Positive people are not taken seriously, and positive women are taken even less seriously. People think positive people are way down on the totem pole.”
As communities across the United States observe National HIV Testing Day and emphasize taking control of our health and lives, women’s voices are an essential but still neglected part of the conversation. The experiences of Black women living with HIV, within the broader context of their sexual and reproductive health, highlight the need to address systemic health disparities and the promise of a powerful movement at the intersection of sexual and reproductive justice.
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The urgency of adopting an intersectional approach to sexual and reproductive health comes to light when considering the disproportionate impact of HIV on women of color. Black women account for 69 percent of all HIV diagnoses among women in the South. Advocates also acknowledge the history of biomedical and reproductive oppression that Black women have suffered throughout American history, including forced pregnancy and childrearing during slavery to forced sterilization afterward. Keeping these matters in mind helps us understand how the HIV epidemic is a matter of sexual and reproductive justice.
Taking seriously the perspectives of women such as Williams would amplify our collective efforts to eradicate HIV’s impacts while elevating women’s health, dignity, and agency. This is especially pressing for women living with HIV who experience the greatest disparities and access barriers to the broad spectrum of reproductive health, including contraception and abortion.
The policy context has created additional barriers to advancing the reproductive health of women living with HIV. For example, the 2015 National HIV AIDS Strategy Update neglected to mention family planning or reproductive health services as arenas for providing HIV prevention care. Yet, in many instances, a reproductive health clinic is a woman’s primary or only point of access to health care in a given year. Providing HIV prevention and care in family planning clinics is a way to provide a space where women can expect to receive guidance about their risk of exposure to HIV.
As advocates for women living with HIV, we at SisterLove are committed to ensuring that human rights values are at the center of social change efforts to protect and advance the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and their families. We work to transform the policy frame to one that asserts women’s agency to make decisions that are best for themselves and their loved ones. We draw strength from the resilience and determination of the women we serve.
Several years after becoming deeply involved with SisterLove, Williams became an advocate for her own reproductive health and began speaking out on behalf of other Black women living with HIV. She eventually became a trainer, counselor, and health outreach worker.
Later, in 2004, Williams was the only woman living with HIV invited to be a main speaker at the historic March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C. She is a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother who has returned to South Carolina, where she teaches other women living with HIV about sexual and reproductive justice and human rights. Williams uses her own story and strength to help other women find theirs.
“Give [women living with HIV] a voice and a platform for that voice,” she has said. “Give a safe place to let their voices be heard and validate them …. We need positive women’s voices to continue to fight the stigma. How do we do that? We tell our stories and reflect each other. I am not the enemy, I am the answer.”
Advocates need strength as we work at many critical intersections where the lives of women and girls are shaped. We cannot address HIV and AIDS without access to contraception and abortion care; health and pay equity; recognition of domestic and gender-based violence; and the end of HIV criminalization. And as advocates for sexual and reproductive health in our communities, SisterLove is working alongside our sisters to support National HIV Testing Day and ensure all people have the information, tools, and agency to take control of their health.
Elevating the health and dignity of people living with HIV calls for special attention to the epidemic’s implications for women of color and Black women, particularly those within marginalized communities and in the Deep South. The voices and leadership of the most affected women and people living with HIV are essential to making our efforts more relevant and powerful. Together, we can advance the long-term vision for sexual and reproductive justice while working to eradicate HIV for all people.
“We need to have a national conversation about racism, homophobia, and transphobia,” said Alan Pelaez Lopez, a member of the organization Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement. “If these things do not happen, the nation, by definition, will have done nothing to support our communities.”
The same day of the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting that would take the lives of 49 mostly Latino and LGBTQ-identified people, thousands of miles away in Santa Monica, California, a man was found with weapons, ammunition, and explosive-making materials in his car with plans to attend the annual Pride festival taking place in West Hollywood later that day.
But queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) say these responses are missing the mark, because what their communities really need are deeper conversations and more resources that address their specific experiences, including fewer police at Pride events.
House Democrats held a sit-in on gun control this week as a direct response to the Orlando shooting. Though Alan Pelaez Lopez—an Afro-Latinx, gender-nonconforming immigrant, poet, and member of the organization Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement—agrees that gun control is important and should be considered by Congress, they said it can also feel like the community affected by the shooting almost always gets erased from those discussions.
“We need to have a national conversation about racism, homophobia, and transphobia,” the poet said. “If these things do not happen, the nation, by definition, will have done nothing to support our communities.”
Rethinking ‘Pride’ for People of Color
In mid-May, Rewire reported on the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA)’s week of action to #RedefineSecurity, which encouraged participants to reimagine what safety looked like in Asian and Pacific Islander communities, and called for them to push back against police presences at Pride events.
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Pride events and festivals take place each June to commemorate the Stonewall riots in New York City, a clash between police officers and members of the LGBTQ community—led by trans women of color—that would kickstart the modern LGBTQ movement.
Even after the Orlando shooting at a gay nightclub, NQAPIA organizing director Sasha W. told Rewire their stance on police at Pride events hasn’t changed, but only grown more resolute.
As an organizer working with queer and trans Muslim, South Asian, and Middle Eastern communities, Sasha W. said the populations they work with say that framing the Orlando shooting as a “terrorist attack” makes them feel “increasingly unsafe.”
“I think part of what we need to remember is to examine what ‘terror’ looked like in queer and trans communities over the course of our history in this country,” Sasha W. said. They cited the Stonewall riots and the inaction by the government during the HIV and AIDS epidemic as examples of some of the many ways the state has inflicted violence on queer and trans communities.
Sasha W. added that pointing blame at Daeshis too easy, and that the oppression queer and trans people face in the United States has always been state-sanctioned. “We have not historically faced ‘terror’ at the hands of Muslim people or brown people. That is not where our fear has come from,” they said.
What’s missing, they said, is a conversation about why police officers make certain people feel safe, and “interrogating where that privilege comes from.” In other words, there are communities who do not have to fear the police, who are not criminalized by them, and who are confident that cops will help them in need. These are not privileges experienced by many in queer and trans communities of color.
Asking the mainstream LGBTQ community to rethink their stance on police and institutions that have historically targeted and criminalized communities of color has been challenging for queer and trans people of color.
What’s become clear, according to Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement founder Jorge Gutierrez, is that after a tragedy like Orlando, white LGBTQ members want to feel united, but many don’t want to discuss how things like race and citizenship status affect feelings of safety. Instead, some will push for a greater police presence at events.
There have already been instances of white members of the LGBTQ community publicly shutting down conversations around racial justice. Advocates say the public needs to understand the broader context of this moment.
“The white LGBTQ community doesn’t face the criminalization and policing that our community faces every day. Not just at Pride, but every day, everywhere we go. That’s our life,” Gutierrez said. “If you don’t listen to us when it comes to these issues of safety, you’re not just erasing us from a tragedy that impacted us, but you’re really hurting us.”
As Gutierrez explained, in the hours after the shooting, some media coverage failed to mention Pulse was a gay club, failed to mention it was people of color who were killed on Latino night, and failed to mention that trans women were performing just before the shooting broke out. Gutierrez told Rewire he felt like his community and their pain was being erased, so his organization put together a video featuring queer and trans immigrants of color, including Lopez, to discuss their immediate feelings after the Pulse shooting—and many shared sentiments similar to Sasha W.’s and Lopez’s. One trans Latina said the shooting was “years in the making.”
“The video was important for us to release because the shooting was being framed as an isolated event that randomly happened, but we know that’s not true. We know that the United States has a history of hurting queer and trans people of color and we needed to produce our own media, with our own messaging, from our own people to tell people what really happened, the history that lead to it happening, and who it really impacted. We didn’t want our voices and our realities as immigrants, as undocumented people, as queer and trans people of color, erased,” Gutierrez said.
Without even factoring in an increase in law enforcement, Lopez told Rewire Pride already felt unsafe for people like them.
“I have experienced a lot of racism [at Pride events], the pulling of my hair from people walking behind me, and I have also been sexually harassed by white people who claim to want to experiment with being with a Black person,” Lopez said.
Though Lopez didn’t attendany Pride events in Los Angeles this year, they told Rewire that in previous years, there was already a large police presence at Pride events and as a “traumatized person” who has had many negative interactions with police officers, including being racially profiled and stopped and frisked, encountering law enforcement was scary.
“Seeing [cops] at Pride makes me remember that I am always a target because at no time has the police made me feel protected,” the poet said. “Signs of heavy police presence are really triggering to people who have developed post-traumatic stress disorder from violent interactions with the police, for undocumented communities, for transgender communities, for young people of color, and for formerly incarcerated individuals. When I think of security, I do not think of police.”
Another reason Lopez chose not to attend Pride this year: It was being sponsored by Wells Fargo. The banking corporation sponsors over 50 yearly Pride events and has been called a “longtime advocate of LGBT equality” by organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, which also lists Wells Fargo as a top-rated company on its Corporate Equality Index. But Wells Fargo has a history of investing in private prisons, including detention centers. Calls to drop Wells Fargo from Pride events have been unsuccessful. For queer immigrants like Lopez, attending Pride would mean “financially contributing” to the same corporation and system that they said killed their friends, the same corporation that they said has incarcerated their family, and that they said has tried—but failed—to incarcerate them.
Sasha W. told Rewire that for QTPOC, it’s easy to forget that the event is supposed to be about celebration.
“For many of us, we can’t really bring our whole selves into these places that are meant to make us feel free or we have to turn off parts of who we are in order to enjoy ourselves” the organizer said. “And as far as the policing of these events go, I think it’s worth noting that policing has always been about protecting property. It’s always been about property over people since the days of the slave trade. When we see police at Pride events the assumption [by our communities] is that those police will protect money and business over our queer brown and Black bodies.”
“Really Troubling Policies”
As organizations and corporations work to meet the short-term needs of victims of the Orlando shooting, advocates are thinking ahead to the policies that will adversely affect their communities, and strategizing to redefine safety and security for QTPOC.
Gutierrez told Rewire that what has made him feel safe in the days since the Orlando shooting is being around his QTPOCcommunity, listening to them, mourning with them, sharing space with them, and honoring the lives of the brothers and sisters that were lost. His community, the organizer said, is now more committed than ever to exist boldly and to make the world a safer place for people like them—and that means pushing back against what he believes to be a troubling narrative about what safety should look like.
However, Gutierrez said that politicians are using his community’s pain in the wake of the Orlando shooting to push an anti-Muslim agenda and pit the LGBTQ community against Muslims, conveniently forgetting that there are people who live at the intersection of being queer and Muslim. Perhaps more troubling are the policies that may arise as a result of the shooting, policies that will add to the surveilling and profiling Muslims already experience and that will further stigmatize and criminalize vulnerable communities.
“The government, the police, politicians, they’re trying to equate safety with having more police on the street, at gay clubs—that are like home to many of us, and at Pride. We know that doesn’t make us safe; we know police are part of the problem,” he said.
“Of course we need to make it more difficult for people to get guns, but we also need more resources for our communities so our communities can truly be safe on the streets, in the workplace, at school, at the clubs, and at Pride,” he said. “That means having healthy communities that have resources so people can thrive and live authentically. The answer to our problems is not more police.”
Sasha W. echoed Gutierrez, saying that their community is already fearful of what’s to come because moments of national crisis often create the space for “really troubling policies.”
“That’s how we got the Patriot Act,” the organizer said. “There is a fear that we are in another one of those moments where there are calls for protection and it’s being tied to the false idea of a foreign threat that requires an increase of surveillance of Muslims. Think of how calls for protection have also hurt queer communities, communities of color, trans communities, like the idea that bathrooms aren’t safe because of trans people. Who is really unsafe in this country, and why do policies hurt us instead of protect us?”
Lopez added: “The Orlando shooting was powered by the fact that the United States has a history of violence against LGBTQIA communities, a history of violence against immigrants, a history of violence against women, and a history of colonization of the island of Puerto Rico …The U.S. needs to address institutional problems of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sex, and sexuality if it wants to put an end to future massacres.”
Sasha W. urges QTPOC to “expand their political imagination” and re-envision what security looks like. In the long term, the organizer said, they hope more people recognize who their communities’ “actual enemies” are, instead of turning on each other.
“Let’s recognize that the state has always been something we’ve had to fight to survive and that institutions that hurt us are growing increasingly strong in this moment of crisis, as they often do, so we have to work to disarm and dismantle the institutions that terrorize our communities” they said.
“On another note, we have always been our own best defense, especially in communities of color,” they said. “Supporting each other to protect ourselves better doesn’t happen overnight, I know, but so much of this starts with building community with each other so that we know each other, love each other, and throw down for one another.”