November 20 is Transgender Day of Remembrance.
I have collaborated closely with transgender women and health providers in Latin America and the Caribbean to learn more about the needs of transgender populations and to train health workers to provide quality services. Working alongside transgender women on needs assessments, trainings for health providers, and in the development of a blueprint (PDF) for comprehensive transgender services, opened my eyes to their experiences, gaps in existing programs that limit access to critical services, and the opportunities we need to pursue. To help you understand my recommendations, I would like to share a story I heard repeatedly from transgender women:
I was 13 years old when my family threw me out of the house because of who I am. I tried to continue my studies, but I dropped out of school because my classmates insulted me every day and sometimes hit me, and I was afraid to use the boys’ bathroom (the only one I was allowed to use) because I was afraid of being assaulted by male students. The teachers looked the other way or called me names. I have developed a thick skin because when I step out of my home, people stare, make comments and give menacing gestures. Going to a clinic is also unpleasant. I get sick like everybody else, but the nurses always assume that I am a sex worker and that I have HIV. Frequently, they give me condoms and an HIV test and send me home. One time I was jumped by four guys in the street, and I ended up in the emergency room. When one of the nurses opened my robe and saw that I am a transgender woman, she gave me a look of disgust and called me a homosexual. She must have told others about me because several nurses came, opened my robe and walked away laughing. I waited for a long time before a doctor saw me. He told me that real men do not dress like women, and that I should cut my hair and stop wearing make-up so I could get a job. I had a cut in my head that needed stitches and the doctor did not even clean the blood in my hair.
This story, and the others that I heard through this work, underscored the need for a new approach to transgender health:
- Prevention efforts must engage families and schools to foster supportive environments. Transgender teens frequently experience rejection from their families and bullying in school. Homelessness, low literacy, and lack of family protection not only increase the likelihood that these teens will experience exploitation, but also severely limit their opportunities to find jobs.
- Many people, including health providers, do not clearly understand the spectrum of sexualities, genders, and identities. Their confusion often leads to stigmatizing attitudes and discriminating practices in health care settings, which in turn discourages transgender women from seeking care.
- Increasing access to counseling and testing and other HIV services should not be an end in itself. Securing the human rights of transgender communities and creating a safer environment where they can access appropriate services without fear of violence or discrimination should be the focus.
- Increasing access to condoms and HIV information are cornerstones of HIV prevention, but national prevention programs need to go beyond these two strategies. Policies and programs should also support employment and education opportunities for transgender persons. The pressure to put food on the table and a roof over their families’ heads can lead to poor decision making, resulting in risk-taking behaviors.
- Engaging transgender persons in program activities as facilitators or data collectors strengthens their technical capacities and allows them to engage with health providers and communities as professionals and peers. This can effectively dispel myths and negative beliefs about transgender women, their capacity, and their behavior.
By sharing my observations and the stories I heard, I hope to raise awareness of the issues that come into play and to encourage all of us to reconsider how our programs can better contribute to the well-being of transgender persons and their communities. We can make that commitment today on Transgender Day of Remembrance, an internationally recognized day to memorialize those who suffered or died as a result of anti-transgender hatred or prejudice.
Aysa Saleh-Ramirez, MPH is AIDSTAR-One Senior Technical Advisor at John Snow, Inc. AIDSTAR-One is funded by PEPFAR through USAID.