by Max Smith
When my campus recently brought in a local group to offer free HIV testing for National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, the process did not go as smoothly as it has in the past. The people working were less willing to test everyone who came through the door, and there was a questionnaire to see if the student even “needed” to be tested. If they thought a student was “not at risk” they were turned away. A friend of mine went to get tested – but when she said she was having unprotected sex with a woman, she was told she had too low of a risk. She was turned away without answering any questions about her sexual history of previous partners.
When I and a fellow FMLA officer were told about this incident, we were shocked and a little outraged. When we went to find out more, everything only got more disappointing.
After some inquiries, we were told by the folks working the tests that with their funding they could only test people at risk. We tried explaining that while there is a low risk of HIV transmission through two individuals who have vaginas, there is still a risk – but the employee was not persuaded and continued to mention “funding” and the student in question’s “very low risk” to justify having turned her away. We explained that their logic was problematic because students were not only being dissuaded from being tested then and there, but potentially from being tested in the future – or ever again.
That is when we actually read the preliminary questionnaire. One of the questions intended to indicate a moderate to high risk of a positive HIV status was “have you ever had vaginal or anal sex with a transgender person?” While there are statistics by the CDC that indicate trans women have a higher rate of HIV infection, the question felt discriminatory. When trans women were asked about how they felt about it, they told us they were offended and that it made them question their trust in the organization offering the free tests – yet another problematic factor in the entire mess. What was especially upsetting was that the employee had no idea why these questions were on the questionnaire. The employee continually asserted that it was because “trans people are more likely to have anal sex” – thus perpetuating a questionable claim, deflecting the real question, and also ignoring that the question specifically asked about vaginal or anal sex.
Let’s break this down. The question is problematic for several reasons:
- The employee had clearly not been educated on LGBTQ health and what puts people at risk for HIV infection.
- It is alienating for trans individuals and creates a stigma that if you are trans you probably have HIV. This alienation also makes trans individuals less likely to get tested if they feel uncomfortable by an organization.
- The reasoning behind the high HIV rates for trans women has not been thoroughly studied. However, what research is available suggests that the rates have less to do with sexual behavior and more to do with social stigma and the side effects of trans oppression. (Lack of education on LGBTQ health, economic difficulties and fetishization which can lead to sex work, high rates of sexual violence, etc.).
When something like this occurs it is easy to question yourself. Am I overreacting? Does anyone care? Is it wrong for me to criticize something that does more good than harm? Whenever I notice a microaggression, I’m worried that no one will take my concerns seriously (mostly due to previous experience). That is why it was such a relief that when we brought this issue up to our school’s Multicultural Affairs Department, who had hosted the free testing event, and discovered that they were outraged as well and determined to talk to the head of the organization about it. It is easy to get discouraged and feel that no one is on your side, but experiences like this one show me that we are not alone and many people care about being as inclusive as possible.
There are steps we can all take to be more inclusive to LGBTQ people when we talk about sexual and reproductive health. Include LGBTQ specific information in any sex education you teach. Hold your local agencies and testing centers accountable (test their knowledge, encourage them to seek more information, contact administrators to discuss possible changes). Hold your own LGBTQ health information sessions for the general public or your FMLA. Make sure the people in your community know that even a low risk of any STI is still a risk. Encourage people to get tested regularly. Support trans individuals and remember that transmisogyny is still a form of misogyny and a feminist issue.
And most importantly, speak up when you see injustice and oppression in action. You never know how much of an impact it might have.