COVID-19 Call 10 — What Gives Trans People Living with HIV Hope?

A tenth TLC community conversation with Sophia Kass, Tori Cooper, Achim Howard, and Diana Oliva.




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This is being provided in a rough-draft format. Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) is provided in order to facilitate communication accessibility and may not be a totally verbatim record of the proceedings

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>>:  Hello, everyone and welcome to this week’s community virtual gathering brought to you by the Transgender Law Center.  My name is Sophia Kass.  Pronoun he, him, her.  And the program at the Transgender Law Center.  As a quick update, after today’s virtual gathering, we are taking a break and welcome back with virtual gathering in the month of June or pride month.  I will repeat this piece of information at the end, for people who join later.

I would like to start this week allies community gathering by reiterating at the Transgender Law Center, we commit to disability justice as a central value for trans liberation.  Disability justice holds access as a necessary practice for disrupting isolation and ensuring the participation and the leadership of disabled folks.

Access is meaningful when it includes a commitment to the radical, deeply transformative demands of disability justice.  Disability justice charges us to identify, to interrupt, and disrupt all forms of supremacy.  Including ableism, anti-black racism, miscegene, fat phobia, classism and more.  By committing to build accessible spaces, we are implementing a commitment to have critical conversations together around disability justice.

Now, back to possibility trends.  A brief introduction.  We are a national network of trans and gender nonconforming people of color living with HIV.  Our network is led by a committee of around 20 national trans leaders of color living with HIV.  We also have a membership of about 140 members.  Our members are mainly black and brown, trans people living with HIV.  The program’s goal, our goal, is to mobilize and promote, support, the resilience and the leadership of trans people of color, most affected by or living with HIV and aids.  The way we do that is using what I like to call our three main superpowers or three kicks, which is:  Data and research to fill the data gap and the lack of data that represents trans people of color living with HIV.  Telling our stories.  Also to reclaim the power of reclaiming our own narrative.  Finally, our third kick is through leadership development and capacity building.

If you are interested to take a look at the needs assessment — positively trend in 2016 and then in 2018, please check — I think it’s going to be in the captions, the link to where you can find the report.  Also, the YouTube channel link to where you can find all of our videos.  I should mention that our videos are no longer than three minutes.  And so it’s going to be really enjoyable and easy for people to watch through.

Next, I would like you to help me welcome and introduce three committee members of the trans project.  Achim Howard, Diana owe Olivia, from California, and Tori Cooper from Washington, DC, originally from Georgia calling in from Washington, DC.

Diana, we can start the first question with you if you don’t mind.

Can you tell us more about yourself and particularly, when you answering Diana, would you please tell us how HIV has impacted your life.  Looking at today, how do you see the challenges of COVID-19 as compared to the challenges of HIV?

>>:  DIANA:  Good afternoon, everyone.  I’m Diana O. and thank you again, to Sophie and the Trans Law Center — I’m deeply grateful to be part of this gathering.  Hello to everyone across the country.  I was diagnosed with HIV back in January of 2000, twenty years ago.  I remember the day I was living in my hometown, Fresno California, when I received the painstaking news that I was HIV positive.  I thought my life was over.  I physically thought I was going to die in a few weeks or in a few months.

You know, it brought me to a mental state of denial.  I didn’t address my HIV status until probably 18 months later when a center of mine passed away.  Her death really awakened a spirit in me to live my life, fight for my life, to live my life as if it was my destiny to live for many, many years.

And so I left Fresno and moved to Los Angeles to engage and maintain my treatment and addressing my HIV.  And so my life has changed in the past 20 years.  I have been able to achieve and fulfill many of my dreams.  One of my dreams was to go back to college and receive a master’s degree.  I received that 15 years ago at Columbia University and to be one of the first trans people to receive a master’s degree from Columbia University.  Recently, about five months ago, purchased a home for the you very first time.  So if it wasn’t for HIV I don’t think it would have propelled me to begin a second chapter in my life fulfilling and make an impact in communities.  I think the fear and the anxiety and the stress and the sadness and the depression happening all over again for many people living with HIV or at risk with HIV.  And I think the lessons we learn through the aids epidemic that we can apply here for the COVID-19 academic.  Staying connected, having these virtual community gatherings, talking one another, sharing best practices, would be beneficial to all our communities living with or affected by live.  Thank you, again, Sophie, for the question.

>> SPEAKER:  Thank you, Diana.  My next question.  We can go to ample in.  Can you tell us what challenges did COVID-19 create for our community?  For example, what needs or gaps are you seeing being amplified as a result of COVID-19?  And as a result of the disparities?

>>:  The challenges — hi, I’m Achim.  The challenges I see with COVID-19 from my community, is that a lot of jobs were lost.  I know for me I went into furlough, so I had to, um, create, um, something to get income.  Selling my art work or selling Avon or dog something that would create some income coming in.

Um, what needs or gaps need to be amplified?  I think during this timeframe, it has really taught me to really look into myself as an individual and try to figure out what exactly do I want to do and how can I help the community at the same time?

I noticed that a lot of us are helping one another by giving — there’s a group that would make — for the community.  What I see is a lot of people becoming unified.  It somebody needs help, they’re trying to find ways of helping and giving.  Element of hope, aka, trans march, just a different community entities that have been, um, giving out funds.  Alpha Omega Kappa fraternity incorporated that’s — they have funds that they were giving out.

So that’s .Trans Law.  Different entities come together.  I noticed that — my thing is I’ve noticed that a lot of people have been scared because they don’t know what exactly is COVID-19.  It is affected us the same way when aids was first, became resistance.  People didn’t know what to do.  This is the first time I have never seen the government or people shutdown all throughout the country just for something.

At first, it just — HIV or aids was just affecting one set of community, but COVID-19 is hitting everybody at a rampant and it’s not just hitting people with HIV, it’s hitting the elderly and doesn’t have a name to it.  It’s like everybody is really scared because they don’t know what to expect or when it is going to end.

So now everybody is cautious.  Like I said, I’ve seen a lot of unity within the community.  Speaking.  When I say community I’m not just talking about the LGBTQ community I’m talking about the community in general.  I see people pitching in, giving out food and helping the homeless.  It has really impacted the people through the heart.  And I think that’s the only way that we are going to come through this.

>> SPEAKER:  Thank you, Achim.  My next question goes to Tori.  Tori, from what you are observing, how is our community responding to the challenges that Achim just talked about?  If you can mention in the initiatives, for example, that you have seen happen.  Also, how can people watching, for example, support or contribute or chime in?

>>:  Tori:  Can you hear me now?  [inaudible] and now can you hear me?  Okay.  Great.  We’ll stay right there.  Wonderful.  All right, I would love to thank Sophie and TLC and everyone who had a part in bringing me here today to be a part of such an amazing group of folks.  In response to what Achim said and what Sophie said, there are some amazing — I’ll first say that the transgender nonbinary communities have shown throughout many, many years, that if nothing else, we are resilient.

For those who have been diagnosed with HIV, that virus didn’t kill you because you’re here tonight.  COVID-19 doesn’t have to kill you.  I am so immensely impressed at all of the innovations that I’m seeing across the country.  I am seeing that folks, some of the things Achim mentioned.  I love to see that we, as always, have created solutions that are going to help to save our lives and contribute to our lives.  There are resource funds that have popped up all over the place.  There are some of the larger pharmaceutical companies, for instance, have given.  The Elton John Foundation was another that contributed to — they put $1 million back in the community to help community of people living with HIV to create a rapid resource fund.  And then organizations across the country trans led, trans run, and trans serving organizations then created smaller rapid resource funds.

That’s resilience.  I have seen, as Achim said, where we are — folks are creating masks.  Masks are one of the few tools we have to keep us safe other than, of course, quarantining.  So it is wonderful to see folks, every day trans folks, binary, folks pitching in, it is wonderful to see how we are all — making sure that folks have a meal and a place to stay.

I’m so proud of all of us.  I know this will continue.  Because, again, if HIV didn’t kill you, then COVID-19 doesn’t have to.

>> SPEAKER:  Thank you, Tori.  Diana, my next question is for you.  How can people today, in the midst of all the fear, learn from the accumulated wisdom of trans and people of color living with HIV since the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic?

>>:  DIANA:  I really want to echo what my sister, Tori Cooper, happy birthday by the way.  Looking fabulous at 50.  The power of resiliency and perseverance that’s one of the lessons learned that people with aids epidemic and people learning still today.  And the fortitude and the innovation of our thinking, I think we have become, as a community, more strategic and more tactical. 

If things are not — if we have the intentional to go ahead and create our own organizations, our own initiatives and our own movements and I think we’re seeing that especially through the COVID-19.  Many of our trans communities are struggling.  In silos, people are drawn to being connected and unfortunately, because of shelter in place and quarantining we’re unable to.  We are so resilient and innovative where we create these virtual gatherings and community town halls and just a few weeks ago, I created my own zoom party.

I never had or imagined that at 48 years old I would separate my birthday virtually and come across people across the globe who came on zoom to wish me a happy birthday.  So I think what we’re seeing in our community is the resiliency and the fortitude of our communities.  That’s what’s going to go ahead and propel us to successfully overcome COVID-19.  I know that people are scared and anxious and sometimes we don’t want to come out of bed and don’t want to do the daily routine, taking a shower, combing our hair and brushing our teeth.  It’s super important to stay connected.  Sometimes that cell phone weighs a thousand pounds because we’re afraid to ask for how.  But I think during this time, I think our community has demonstrated resiliency, but willingness to help one another.  We have had so many funding resources that Tori explained that are uplifting and supporting our communities.  Will it ever be enough?  Probably not.  But I think people are creating GoFundMe accounts and I created one for folks across the country to help them with groceries.  I think this is an opportunities not only from the aids epidemic that we learned from, but during the COVID-19 and the aids epidemic in the ’80s and ’90s we can apply to COVID-19.  The government are not going to be saving us or going to be there to mentally empower us.  It’s up to us as community, grassroots organizers, as activists, leaders to create our own initiatives to making sure that we don’t leave anyone bind.

>> SPEAKER:  Thank you for that, Diana.  My last question goes to the three panelists:  Achim, what gives you hope or inspires to you persevere and keep living in this particular difficult moment?  Um, if Achim is not ready we can — there we go.  Thank you.

>>:  Achim:  This is new.  Turning off the video and turning it back on.  What gives me hope is my higher power.  Um, spirituality.  And everyone in the community pitching in and to have someone that is encouraging every day.  That’s what gives me hope, because I know that trouble is not going to last always.  You know, my favorite motto is, it’s going to rain sometimes, but, you know, the sun is always going to come out.  So that’s what I live by.  Even though it’s a struggle, we’re going to make it through.  The only way we’re going to the it is working together, coming together as a community, being selfless and helping one another.  Not being greedy or demeaning to anybody.  If somebody needs help, give them the help that they need.  One that I think struggle with is asking for help, because I’m always helping other people.  It’s not of me to help, but I have gained the courage to ask for help during this time.  Even though that was a struggle for me, I have connected with quite — you know, just the good community that’s just been helping.  I can’t say anything else.  But it’s just the community that has lifted me up.  The phonecall is reaching out has helped me as well.  It’s not just me going through it.  It’s everybody going through it.  So that’s another thing that’s giving me hope too because we’re all struggling with the same thing.  It’s not one person is going through it.  It’s everybody going through it.  So everybody is connected and everybody is talking about how we’re going to make it through.  What we need to do to make it through.  What are the next steps in order for something like this in the future happens, what can we do so that we can be prepared for the next go around.  It just gives me hope that everybody is putting their heads and minds together.  As well as their hearts.

>> SPEAKER:  Tori, I was just giving you the space, the air.  Sorry.

>>:  Tori:  Thank you.  Well, I was going to just start talking.  One of the great things and I will be as distinct as I can.  I’m not known for brevity and shortness, but I will keep it quick.  Diana is right.  Today is my 50th birthday and one of the things gives me hope is that there’s going to be a time when many of us don’t have the same job, when we won’t have the same job.  When our job titles will not have to include HIV.  Our job titles will not have to include trans, because all people, regardless as to what your HIV diagnosis is or what your gender identity is, will be treated equally and or equably.  We have to remember, right now, COVID-19 is taking over the news, but HIV — the HIV epidemic is not over.  There are folks that are still dying from HIV disease and who are not getting everything that they need.  There are folks who are still having difficulty obtaining housing.  I am terribly afraid that some of the money that’s redirected to COVID-19 is going to end upcoming from the EHE or the ECE.  It’s going to come from the Ryan — program.  We’re $5 trillion in debt or will be soon.  So it’s important to understand that our money comes from V. I have hope in the fact that in spite of all of the challenges, trans and nonbinary spaces, in spite of all of the challenges that people of color, and in particularly black and brown people face, I am inspired and hope that we have made it this far and we will continue to figure out ways to take care of ourselves and to heal ourselves and to move forward.

>> SPEAKER:  Thank you, Tori.  Diana it’s all yours.

>>:  DIANA:  Thank you, so much.  It’s so good to be on a panel like Tori and ample in.  I appreciate the resiliency that you both carry.  What inspires me or what gives me hope?  The simple answer is God, my family, my close friends and my community.  It I grew up in a rural town in California and we grew up poor.  We were on public assistance, on Medicaid and I would go hungry to school at times and I would have stomach aches of the I learned very early on, that there were so many injustices in the world.  You know, sometimes I wish — you know, when will I ever stop fighting?  I remember the first time — one of my first memories, a stigma.  This was which before my HIV diagnosis and my experiences with HIV stigma, but I was about six years old in kindergarten and the last week of school.  We were plague activities and recreational games and we would win prizes or medals and it was a hula hoop contest.  And I grew up in the projects in a rural town. 

I had a best friend named popular and yeah, yeah, and we heard that we heard that there was going to be a hula hoop contest and one of us is going to win.  All the boys hula hoops immediately dropped and — and I was the only one.  And I was a feminine little boy who hula hooping for my life.  But it was the first time I saw the teachers, adults looking at me with disgust or this look of shame. 

It was my first time as a six-year-old, experiencing shame and stigma.  I will never forgot that feeling.  I grew up in my life helping my mom in the fields picking grapes, marching with Caesar Chavez and someone else for farm worker rise.  That was my first experience fighting for human rights.  Then growing up watching, you know, movies on Martin Luther King.  I remember crying. 

I just recently watched a series on PBS about Asian America and Pacific Islanders immigrants because we’re celebrating Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.  It brought tiers to me again.  It reminds me of the work that still needs to be done, not only in HIV, but now, the criminalization of COVID-19 and valence and the policing of folks during this pandemic. 

There’s so many injustices in the world that that’s what gives me hope and inspiration that I cannot rest.  I need to be the voice of the voice less.  I need to march, boycott, fight, protest, lead, I need to activate community to making sure that by the time I’m old and gray and cannot walk, cannot fight, cannot speak anymore, that I can look back on my death bed and I can say:  You know what, I gave it my all.

And that day will come.  I want to make sure when that day comes that my heart is full of hope and inspiration that I did a good enough job for not only myself and family, but my community making sure that every injustice is combated with love and understanding.

>> SPEAKER:  Thank you, Diana.  I would like to open it up and ask each of the panelists what message they would like that offer, both our siblings living with HIV and our trans and siblings who aren’t living with HIV.  Before that, I want to remind that next week we’re taking a break from the community virtual gathering and that we are coming back in June or pride month.

With that, we can start with Achim.

>>:  Achim:  Sorry.  Repeat the question, again, Sophie.

>> SPEAKER:  On, of course.  What methods, at the end, do you have for our trans and gender conforming community both folks living with HIV or maybe not living with HIV?

>>:  Achim:  The message I have is just keep on living.  Whether you have HIV or not, just live.  We only have one life to live.  You know, you only live once and you’re not coming back.  So I just say live.  While you’re living, live for yourself.  Make sure that you safeguard yourself in everything that you do.  Always put yourself first and — mine is God.  I put God first before I do anything.  At the same time, I always think of myself on when I’m doing things.  Then looking out for others and be careful out there.  Do what you have to do to protect yourself whether you are positive or not, and just live your life the way you are meant to live your life.  Remember that your life is more and greater than you, that your life has purpose and meaning.

>> SPEAKER:  Thank you, so much, Achim.  Tori.  What final message would you like to give us?

>>:  Tori:  So my final message is just to go for it.  Whatever it is, go for it.  I tend to stay away from words like could, should and would because, in my opinion, they’re passive words.  But for people who are diagnosed with HIV, HIV should be enough — should be enough, to encourage you to go after every dream and to get.  If your dream is to get a master’s degree, go and get it.  If your dream is to own a home, go and get it.  If your dream is to fly to the moon, go and get it.  Do not allow COVID-19, HIV or any other STD or any other person to stop you from your dream.

Only you can do it.

>> SPEAKER:  Thank you, Tori, Diana.

>>:  DIANA:  Hi, everyone, my final message to all my brother or sisters and siblings out there in the world is to love yourself.  You know, if no one told you today that they love you, let me be the first one to say that I love you and care for you.  Pick up the phone, reach out.  Stay connected.  If you are struggling with mental health, motional wellbeing, call your friends call your non-profit organization or agency and ask for help.  Practice self-care.  Stay connected and do the daily routines.  Sometimes it’s hard for me to get out of bed, put on my make up and wash my hair — I have a rollercoaster of emotions for the last two months because I’ve seen many great friends of mine pass away due to COVID-19.  I’ve had a couple of family members pass away because of COVID-19.  It hasn’t been easy.  I think what I have learned in this last two months is that never take anything for granted.  Reach out to those relationships in your family or in your friends that you have lost touch with.  Reengage in those relationships.  Read something that made you smile or laugh, read a book.  Watch Netflix, paint your toe nails, garden, walk around.  Try to be as active as you can.  Practice self-care, love on, yourself, love on others.  I wish you all the very best.  My prayers and thoughts will always be with you.  Thank you.

>>SOPHIE: I would like to thank you all for being a great audience, and just wish you great weekend and hopefully safe times ahead.  Bye-bye everyone.

(end of meeting)