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RIP To Stigma on HIV Within the Transgender Youth Community

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Despite living in a more progressive time period, conversations tend to be burdened by a mandate of silence when it comes to talking about how HIV or AIDS impacts the transgender community.

According to GLAAD, a nonprofit supporting the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, aseuxal/aromantic community, the term transgender is defined as “an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.” In other words, the term transgender can apply to individuals who self-identity as the gender not assigned at birth without going through medical procedure for gender reassignment.

An estimated 700,000 Americans are transgender, according to the Williams Institute at UCLA. The New York Times reported last summer that some researchers says that number “is undercounted because of a reluctance among some transgender people to discuss it with survey takers or signify it on a government form. In a study by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 71 percent of transgender people said they hid their gender or gender transition to try to avoid discrimination.”

HIV and trans teens

“I think we avoid sex-talk because we have some members within the trans community who are really sensitive to those things (HIV),” says Kayla Christ, 17, a trans girl who lives in Fayetteville. “I have taken notice to when individuals are adjusted to being trans, they become more at ease with conversing on the topic of sexual intercourse.”

“There is also a lot of stigma toward HIV playing a role within the trans community, but I strongly believe that it comes in the form of classist attitudes. HIV is generally associated with poverty, but of course it could happen to anyone,” says Mac McCullough (College Park) 16, a trans girl.

“The transgender population is heavily overlooked within the HIV community due to the large amount of stigma and lack of information. I would attribute this to how statistics might group trans men with the men who have sex with men group, ” Winston Liburd, chief financial officer at Someone Cares of Atlanta told VOX. “Of course, this is inaccurate and leads the trans community into thinking that their statistics are not growing.”

Which sub-group is at the greatest risk?

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“While there is no difference in safer sex practices as compared to individuals who are cisgender, in my studies I have found that male-to-female individuals are at greater risk when they engage in receptive anal intercourse,” said Dr. Brian Dew, chair of Counseling and Psychological Services at the College Education and Human Development at GSU said to VOX. “During my assessing HIV/AIDS in Atlanta’s transgender community, it was interesting to see how the risk factor spiked when it came to the sharing of needles for hormone injections. The transgender community is put at great risk due to a lack of resources and studies that could be of assistance.”

When it comes to healthcare providers that not only provide equal assistance to all of its patients and are willing to treat transgender individuals, the amount of places is quite rare. “If a transgender individual were to visit a heterosexual doctor who is uncomfortable with them and present that they are HIV positive, the turnout may not be favorable,” said Kim Massell Director of Youth Services  from Lost-N-Found Shelter, a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding shelter for homeless LGBT youth. “The doctor might advise them to stop take the HIV medication versus their hormones. There needs to be more trans-friendly doctors and facilitations that are willing to be of assistance and annihilate the stigma.”  

JustUsATL, a nonprofit in midtown Atlanta, is one of a few support groups that encourage trans teens with safe spaces and forums. These forums include dialogues on various topics — including HIV, AIDS and more. “JustUsATL is a democratic social and activism group lead by queer youth, for queer youth,” said Zaiah Phillips, the organization’s JusTeens and TransIt Forum Leader. “We are a strong community, and together we support each other, tackle important topics, and have fun.”

Erase the stigma?

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With every problem, there exists a few possible solutions that could ease the burden toward others and potentially annihilate the problem entirely. “It is all about acceptance and being able to be out in a safe way. The more that is the case, the less likely trans women will be forced into situations that put them at high risk for HIV. A lot of them turn to sex work due to them being fired from a more conventional job or if they find themselves not being able to gain a job” says Vandy Beth, a Georgia native who was wrongfully fired for being a transgendered woman in Glenn v. Brumby, according to a 2010 Associated Press story.

While watching Orange Is the New Black, I remember that one character was taking estrogen pills, but they were taken away from them because the doctor claimed she was having liver problems. It turns out that the jail that did not want to pay for her medication any longer. Cases like that just so happen to be real life events and that is terrifying,” says Jadessa Gang, 16, trans girl from Alpharetta.  

“I do not think that the stigma will ever be erased completely because there will always exist people who desire to categorize groups of people according to their skewed beliefs. Perhaps the burden could be eased if there was a more positive spotlight casted on people who identify as transgender.”

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