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By Cecilia Chung, Senior Strategist at Transgender Law Center and lead staff for Positively Trans

This July marked a new chapter for trans advocacy at the IMG_7190International AIDS Conference held in Durban, South Africa. For the first year ever, there was a trans-specific pre-conference, and thanks to the support of Elton John AIDS Foundation, Ford Foundation and individual donors, Transgender Law Center was able to provide partial support to a total of seven delegates, six of whom are transgender people living with HIV, to travel to the conference from the United States.

Through a week of workshops, networking, discussions, and actions, it became clear that we can no longer separate domestic advocacy agendas from the global movement. There was no shortage of discussion on treatment accessibility, availability and affordability, sexual and reproductive health, and rights of women and transgender people. After all, it still takes intentionality to remind advocates and providers that not everyone seeking safe OBGYN services identifies as women and trans men are just as entitled to safe, legal abortion without discrimination. There was noticeable trans representation during many of the actions, such as the Sex Worker March, a storming of the stage to demand decriminalization, and the ongoing panel discussions inside the Global Village of how communities of key populations are leading the efforts of prevention, treatment advocacy and empowerment.

Dee Dee, Octavia, Tela and Nikki – members of Positively Trans who were part of the TLC delegation – found kinship with some of the local and global trans HIV activists. We were excited to present T+ research findings in 6 different workshops and a symposium. And we were equally excited that our project was well-received – we brought 500 copies of the survey reports and we ran out by the second day of the main conference!

It is heartening to see our delegates finding kinship with local trans communities, stepping up to share their own experiences and learning the similarity of their struggles with other regions.

Here are reflections from some of our delegates on their experience:

Dee Dee Chamblee, Positively Trans Advisory Board


“My experience at the International AIDS Conference was phenomenal. As a former survival sex worker, I related to the trans sex workers in South Africa who identify with the term “sex worker” rather than “survival sex worker” because it implies that we need saving. It’s not that we need saving; we just want to be treated with the same human rights everyone else has or wants. We also don’t want to be judged by how we make a living or criminalized simply for carrying condoms to protect ourselves and others.

The West likes to claim we are saving people when in fact our ideology and hypocritical policies have landed us where we are today. We fight for rights that have been wrongfully taking from us by an imperialistic government system that preys on marginalized communities. It seems the system wants to give more power and authority to the rich and more affluent sectors of society. It’s all about being able to keep us in a powerless submissive state of mind. The sex workers at the conference stated how we all were leaving with a feeling of empowerment and inspiration, as well as a more unified respect and love for each other and the work we do as activists and advocates. Amen.”

Tela L. Love, Positively Trans Advisory Board Alumna


“This conference was important for me to attend because it was a way to see how other countries are impacted by HIV stigma.  I took away from this experience the knowledge that in other parts of the world some are not as terrified of the conversations as some us in the United States despite our many advantages in healthcare.

The groups most affected by HIV/AIDS in South Africa — black cis men and black cis and trans women — are not afraid of this conversation, because they understand that the goal is to promote longer healthy lives within their communities. Receiving this perspective was an eye opener and inspired me to continue having conversations about HIV that lessen its taboo so more people can be saved from the potential suffering if left untreated.”

Niko Kowell, Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center


“The International AIDS Conference 2016 was a humbling experience for me. I was honored to attend, learn, represent on behalf of the trans community, and connect to so many folks around the world doing similar work. I made friends and connections that will support our work worldwide. As a white transmasculine provider, I am aware of my privileges and responsibilities. It’s clear the conference has not done enough (although they are trying in small ways) to support trans communities and, most specifically, trans women of color (TWOC). Allies, like me, need to lift up and make space for TWOC.

Overall, I was proud and excited to be at the 2016 International AIDS conference and lift up the voices of my community. We, as trans people, must continue to fight, take up space, and do the work needed to make change. The burden should not be just on the shoulders of trans people. It is everyone’s responsibility to make these changes while avoid tokenizing our community further. I encourage all cis folks, transmasculine folks and white trans folks to take this to heart. Here’s to our future!”

Read more about Niko’s experience here.

Nikki Calma, Positively Trans Advisory Board Member 


“The moment I received news that I was selected to attend the International AIDS Conference 2016 in Durban, South Africa, it was a mixed bag of emotions. The conference is the largest for HIV/AIDS research in the world and is held in different countries.

I am happy to have been given this opportunity to experience the International AIDS conference in 2016. I am feeling empowered, energized, and confident about the work that I do. Knowing that there are 18,000 people who are together with me in combating this disease, fighting stigma and addressing the fight for health and human rights equity for everyone makes the battle for “getting to zero,” not rough at all.”

Read more about Nikki’s experience here.