Using USCA as a platform, activists discuss invisibility and violence

This past September the annual United States Conference on AIDS (USCA) took place in Washington, D.C., and the attendance outnumbered previous years with representation from all fifty states.

At this year’s USCA, leaders of the transgender community used the prominent, community-based conference as a platform to raise awareness around society’s treatment of trans people.

Specific programming at the conference dealing with transgender issues included a workshop on aging in the trans community, a roundtable discussion on holistic engagement solutions for trans women living with HIV, a seminar on a trans women of color initiative aimed at enhancing engagement and retention in HIV care, as well as a workshop which highlighted how the city of San Francisco is utilizing the spectrum of prevention to advance trans health within a high-impact prevention framework. A plenary session on women and HIV included a trans woman of color, Valerie Spencer, as a speaker. Additional time was allotted for transgender-focused sessions; in addition, many of the sessions throughout the four-day conference could have technically applied to someone from the transgender community.

But transgender activists and attendees feel that more attention needs to be given toward the needs of the transgender community and chose to disrupt a plenary luncheon to stage a protest. At the invitation of Paul Kawata, Executive Director of the conference organizer, NMAC (formerly the National Minority AIDS Council), and led by activist Bamby Salcedo, the transgender activists and their allies took the stage to protest and voice their concerns.

“The primary reason why we decided to interrupt the session was because, as we know, the USCA is a national conference where many individuals attend, including people from the government, people from different federal agencies that provide services to people with HIV, in addition to people who provide funding as well as pharmaceutical companies,” said Salcedo. “The [updated] National HIV/AIDS Strategy just came out and we thought it was an opportunity to call out the office for a lack of trans inclusion.”

We need more transgender inclusion, especially in the HIV field; We don't ask for anything more than what other groups have, we just want the same as others.

According to Salcedo, in the initial strategy the transgender community was mentioned and there were some things that were supposed to be implemented, and in the new one recently released, it appears that transgender issues were no longer a priority. “For a lack of a better word, we felt erased. The name of the session that we interrupted was called Mind the Gap, and we thought it was perfect that if people really wanted to ‘mind the gap’, that they should realize that there was a huge gap between trans people and society.”

As for USCA, Salcedo felt that although transgender issues were discussed during the conference, they were mostly focused at an organizational level and not as much on a personal level. “It was educational for other people but it would have been good if it was a collaboration between other organizations instead of just the one local organization they partnered with,” she said.

Kawata continued to support the activists as the protesters exited the stage, telling the audience, “We’re a vast community of diverse people who don’t always understand, but love anyway. It’s that courage to stand up to put your ass on the line [that matters]. If you’re not willing to put your ass on the line, this is not the movement for you.”

When asked what USCA could do to improve the experience for transgender attendees, Salcedo said, “Providing more scholarships for trans people would definitely be a great start.” She also stressed that the planning of the conferences could be more of a collaborative effort. “I think next year since it’s going to be in [Hollywood, Florida], and we will have a representative from the TransLatina Coalition, it would be a good opportunity for us to collaborate with NMAC, so we can include more people.”

Arianna Lint is a transgender woman who attended the conference, and was concerned about the lack of roles and positions available for transgender individuals in the agencies that send people to attend the conference.

“The transgender programs in the United States work only if you have transgender individuals as staff or in management positions,” she said. “We need more transgender inclusion, especially in the HIV field; we don’t ask for anything more than what other groups have, we just want the same as others.” 

Lint also stated that many agencies group transgender women within the men who have sex with men (MSM) group when applying for grants, but then don’t deliver the appropriate services which are desperately needed by her community.

Maritxa Vidal, Executive Board Member of the TransLatina Coalition and employee of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Chicago and its HIV group, Vida/SIDA, noted that USCA this year offered a hospitality lounge for transgender individuals and gender non-conforming individuals, as well as sessions and workshops geared towards her community.

Vidal was part of the group of transgender women who disrupted the Creating Change 2015 conference, as well as this year’s USCA. “The demonstration was and is necessary to bring attention to the crimes being committed against me and my sisters. Not only hate crimes, murder, mutilation, and beatings that we face every day, but structural damage that makes our lives a living hell,” she said. Vidal expressed that many of the agencies receiving “millions of dollars” to work with and for the transgender community had no transgender employees.

On a more serious note, Vidal compared the fear that transgender women go through on a daily basis to those fears felt by people in the United States after the September 11th attacks. “When we would walk past tall buildings wondering if someone was going to target them, is the same exact fear my sisters and I go through every single day of our lives…not knowing if we will return home at night without getting beat up or killed.” She continued, “We will keep on protesting, in acts of public disobedience, and I have a vision that soon this won’t be necessary, but until then, we’ll make our voices heard.”

It’s unsure exactly how many attendees identified as transgender, and there was no specific programing geared towards transgender men. Brandyn Gallagher of Outshine NW did not attend the conference but heard from friends who did and commented on the exclusion of the transgender community from society in general.

“I think the exclusion and erasure of transmasculine people from society is a much larger systemic issue,” he said. “The physical invisibility that protects trans guys from street harassment …is the same invisibility that leads researchers to exclude us from HIV research and forget that we’re part of the MSM risk pool, and it leads cisgender gay men to presume we don’t exist in their community at all.”

According to Gallagher, what gay transmasculine people lack in HIV prevalence is made up for in suicide attempts, because their erasure from the gay community reduces their risk of HIV by isolating them from their community, and that isolation is often fatal. “As integration into gay men’s cultural spaces improves and we become more visibly accepted and welcomed by other gay men, I expect we’ll see HIV incidence among gay trans men increase accordingly. I don’t see anyone proactively discussing that much. To be clear, trans women are currently facing a legitimate crisis with regard to HIV right now, so I want to emphasize that they need all the support they can get, and I think it’s obscene to divide HIV resources for ‘trans people’ between trans men and trans women equally.”

Next year’s USCA will be held in South Florida near Fort Lauderdale, a city making massive efforts to include transgender visitors. Various news outlets have recently recognized the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau for launching its Transgender Travel Initiative, the first of its kind. Furthering its efforts to best cater to all segments of the LGBT market, the CVB will focus on delivering an authentic welcoming experience for transgender visitors.

Awareness about transgender individuals has grown significantly in the past few years, and perceptions have already begun to change. With allies like NMAC and USCA by their side, activists will continue to forge even stronger and more effective partnerships to create change and inform individuals, and society as a whole, about the unique issues and challenges facing the transgender community.

“USCA remains committed to all communities highly impacted by AIDS,” Paul Kawata told Positively Aware. “NMAC stands in solidarity with the trans community in the fight to end the HIV epidemic.”