Being transgender and living with HIV in today’s political environment

Being a woman of transgender identity living with HIV has never been easy. It kills me that so many people believe that being transgender is a choice—like anyone would choose to be abandoned by their family, become a social outcast, and struggle to find employment, housing, health care or even a meaningful relationship. It just sounds insanely stupid to me. People have always attacked the transgender community socially, politically, legally and physically. But in today’s political environment, it’s getting much worse and becoming increasingly dangerous for me and my community to live our lives authentically.

In recent years since the rise of conservative MAGA Christian nationalism, anti-trans bills have been introduced across the country that seek to block trans people from receiving basic healthcare, education, legal recognition and the right to publicly exist. For each of the last four years, the number of anti-trans bills introduced in state legislatures has broken previous records. In 2023, the total number of bills was more than three times the previous record, according to the trans legislation tracker website Already in 2024, there are 467 bills targeting the transgender community—and as I write this it’s only February.

Many of these bills would allow misgendering, deny students the autonomy of their pronouns and preferred names, require educators to “out” students to their parents, ban basic gender identity education and ban inclusion in K–12 classrooms and even higher education. Many states have adopted bills that ostensibly focus on women’s athletics, seeking to codify sweeping definitions of gender and sex. Bills banning gender-affirming care (medical care that is supported by many major medical associations) have surged in recent years. Misinformation about basic facts on gender-affirming care has grown more rampant and has been steadily weaponized in conservative states.

These legislative attacks on my community effectively write transgender people out of existence by state definitions. They impact the ability of transgender people to obtain and update government identification, get an education, use public facilities and much more.

And if that’s not enough, Republican members of Congress are proposing cruel funding cuts of $767 million for 2024 to key federal HIV prevention and treatment programs that are already underfunded, as well as extreme cuts to other social safety net programs. These proposed cuts would dramatically reduce or eliminate funding for the Ending the Epidemic Initiative (EHE), launched in 2019 to end the HIV epidemic by 2030, as well as the Ryan White Part F program, which would affect most people living with HIV. It would also slash funding by over half for the Minority HIV/AIDS Initiative—when people of color are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. All are programs that expand HIV testing, increase access to PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis to prevent HIV) and connect people living with HIV to care.

It’s clear in my mind that this is a war on the LGBTQ+ community, plain and simple. It seems that conservatives are determined to erase my community by any means available, including denying our right to health care. Culture wars have consumed the Republican Party and evangelicals to the point of madness, consumed with hatred and a war mentality intent on “making liberals cry” while offering nothing of value as an alternative. It’s dehumanizing to transgender Americans. It’s a distraction from more serious issues facing our country that aren’t being addressed. Republicans know that if they can focus their followers’ attention and anger on an already marginalized minority group, they can distract their constituents from more important issues that actually directly impact them, such as policies that create economic inequality, erode workers’ rights, degrade the environment and make their water, air and food less safe, just to name a few.

I think a lot of this anti-trans legislation is inspired by a cynical brand of identity politics that appeals to people’s tribal, us vs. them inclinations, to confuse people as to who is really responsible for the decline in their standard of living. If conservative lawmakers get their way, LGBTQ+ people will have no rights at all. We will never end this pandemic, and many will unnecessarily die.

As a woman of transgender identity living with HIV, I always feel like my life is in danger and under assault, but I’ve never been this fearful about my safety and my future. The far right wants a Christian nationalist theocracy and will stop at nothing to achieve it. We must remain vigilant in these times; unite across race, gender, and sexual orientation; and fight against unjust legislation, discrimination and hate. And we must continue our commitment to fight for HIV funding until there’s a cure. Future generations are depending on us.

Katie Willingham, of Tuscumbia, Alabama, is a woman of transgender identity living with HIV. She has worked in HIV advocacy since 2016 with The Positive Women’s Network-USA, blogging for organizations such as The Well Project since 2018 and WebMD since 2020. A transgender advocate with Positively Trans, she is also creator of the Facebook group Alabama Transgender Coalition. Katie spends her free time with her many beloved dogs and only grandson and reminds people to fight for social justice while also enjoying the little flowers along the way.