For World AIDS Day the publication of a report by the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS drawing on what statistics are available about HIV and transgender women makes shocking reading. Yet sadly it is also not shocking at all for most trans activists.
Globally trans women are 49 (yes that is FORTY-NINE!) times more likely to be HIV positive than all other adults. This is probably a misleading figure since the majority of these cases are likely to be concentrated in particular areas, such as Latin America where it will be higher. This is an emergency so great that in most countries in Latin America trans activism is AIDS activism; trans activists there do not have the luxury of campaigning for greater legal recognition and better treatment by the law, their primary goal is often to reach out to trans women to try and and ensure they are protected against HIV.
The problem is that trans activists in these countries are also the prime targets for murder, in areas where the murder rate of trans women is already very high. For example in Mexico Agnes Torres, in Honduras, Cynthia Nicole Moreno, in Venezuela, Michelle Paz, and Zoraida Reyes in California. Indeed all founder members of the Collectivo Unidad Color Rosa in Honduras have been murdered as have most of its existing members, in a clear targeting of trans activism by right-wing vigilantes.
Yet these trans/AIDS activists are the key to fighting AIDS in this part of the world; without being able to learn from trans women involved in the fight against AIDS locally no HIV prevention work can succeed. It is time we asked the large AIDS charities such as the Gates Foundation what they are doing for trans women and how they intend to make sure trans activists in these areas are protected and empowered to help prevent the spread of AIDS.
Reading the Publication by Redlactrans; "The Night is Another Country: Impunity and Violence Against Transgender Human Rights Defenders in Latin America." it becomes clear how the rise of AIDS in trans women has become an acute problem; the social exclusion which often leads to sex work being the only option for employment for many, the lack of medical care and HIV education for trans women, the lack of protection for trans human rights advocates and the lack of protection from violence is leaving trans women in extremely vulnerable situations. All these combine to create the perfect storm placing trans women in ever greater danger from both violence and disease.
Looking at the figures for murders of trans people this year approximately 60% of those who were murdered were aged 30 or under and only 9 were aged over 50. In fact the majority of those aged over 50 were killed in first world countries making it very difficult to argue that the deaths of trans women in Latin America do not represent a form of genocide. Indeed as Fernanda Milan told us about Guatemala; there are no trans women there over 35, they have all been killed before they have the chance to get to that age. It is likely that, without coordinated and determined action the main killer of trans women in Latin America will soon be AIDs-related deaths and the likelihood of trans women living to be middle-aged will become even smaller.
Maybe the world will finally sit up and take notice when it becomes clear that the high level of HIV infection among trans women in Latin America is hampering efforts to stop the spread of AIDS in the cisgender population. Or maybe that will only provide more motivation for vigilantes to increase their genocidal killings. Being trans in too many parts of the world is now associated with violence, disease and death, as well as social exclusion and economic deprivation.
So, as a matter of urgency the large AIDS charities need to:
1) protect trans activists in Latin America; these are the people who will be vital to any campaign to reduce and eradicate AIDS there. They are the voices of trans women in Latin America,
2) target trans women specifically as part of an education programme aimed at preventing the spread of AIDS, using the knowledge of trans activists on the ground,
3) campaign for human rights for trans women such as the right to change ID documentation to enable trans women to better avoid discrimination in education and employment,
4) campaign for free access to gender reassignment for trans women in Latin America, a measure which is likely to reduce the spread of HIV on many levels.
Trans women are dying in large numbers as a result of murder and AIDS, this is happening because the world is choosing to look the other way both locally and internationally. Locally the police and authorities are allowing murders to go unsolved and failing to introduce legislation that will protect trans women. Internationally the large AIDS charities are failing to address the needs of trans women at a time when, in the rest of the population the spread of HIV is starting to turn around. These are not just isolated, one-off occurrences this is a multilevel systemic and systematic failure. There can only be one word for it; genocide.