Transgender day of remembrance: thoughts from a trans peer educator in Dominican Republic

Interviewee: Macarena Pérez, Transgender Peer Educator, Centro de Promoción y Solidaridad Humana (CEPROSH), Dominican Republic
Interviewer: Betty Alvarez, Consultant, FHI 360


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Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) is an annual observance on November 20th that honors the memory of lives lost in acts of transphobic violence. On TDOR, LINKAGES is honored to feature the work and perspectives of one of our trans peer educators – Macarena Pérez. Macarena works with CEPROSH in the Dominican Republic to help trans women understand their right to live free of violence and access services if they experience violence. The interviewer, Betty Alvarez, is a LINKAGES consultant based in the Dominican Republic.


What does Transgender Day of Remembrance mean to you?

For me, this is a very important and significant day. Just as there is a day that commemorates the fight against violence suffered by cisgender women, we – the transgender community – deserve a day, too. It makes me proud that there is a day on which members of the global transgender community that have become victims of gender-based violence can be remembered, because we are also an important part of society.

How does your work as a peer educator help prevent violence against transgender people? How does it help ensure transgender people have access to services if they are victims of violence?

Being a peer educator has empowered me and helped me understand the importance of education and training. Being able to share my knowledge and life experiences with my peers has strengthened my own identity as a transgender individual and, in turn, helps my peers empower themselves and know their right to live free of violence.

I teach my peers about important gender-based violence information – including its links with HIV – provided to us by the LINKAGES project and CEPROSH. I explain “La Ruta” (route of available services) and give information about our rights and how to identify violence. The members of my community feel more confident in seeking health and gender-based violence services and demanding that their rights be upheld.

What kind of support is available to transgender people in your community if they become victims of violence? How is this different than the support that was available in the past?

Transgender people in my community have several services available to them if they become victims of gender-based violence. There are a number of clinical and psychological services provided by CEPROSH, the gender-based violence unit of the District Attorney’s Office, the local police, and peer educators like myself. These services have been strengthened and made more friendly to trans women with support from the LINKAGES project. We have more entry doors to free KP-friendly services than ever before.

What do you believe still needs to be done to end gender-based violence?

To end gender-based violence against trans women, we need to do a very big job. We need to create a new generation with a new way of thinking. We need to educate people from a young age to understand that being different is not a bad thing and that being different does not mean that we do not have the right to live free of stigma and discrimination. We have the right to live a dignified live.

How does gender-based violence against transgender people increase their risk of HIV and make it more difficult for them to access health services?

Many trans people are ignorant of their rights. We have been mistreated for so long that many of us are afraid to seek help because we are afraid of being rejected and discriminated against while seeking services. So, after being victims of violence, many transgender people do not go to services on time or do not go at all, increasing their risk of HIV and other physical and mental health complications.

Why is it important for HIV programs to offer violence services?

It is very important for HIV programs to talk about violence because when people go to a workshop or an educational session about violence in the community, they empower themselves and discover their value as a human being. Then they are more willing to seek services, including HIV services, when needed. As a trans woman, I have fought and will keep fighting so these kinds of programs continue to increase empowerment in the trans community and reduce the incidence of violence.

The participation of LINKAGES and partners and HIV clinics in offering gender-based violence services is fundamental for all key populations. Transgender people in Puerto Plata are now able to get stigma-free and cost-free clinical services, like post-exposure prophylaxis, and psychological counseling if they are victims of violence.

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Key Population Heroes: Finding meaning and renewed purpose after my HIV diagnosis

Written by Christio Wijnhard, Project Coordinator for the LINKAGES Project at Foundation He+HIV, Suriname

Even though Clarence suspected that he might HIV-positive, the 24-year-old was shocked when he first learned his status. “I cried and I cried. I wanted to commit suicide. I thought it was the end for me.”

When Clarence first accepted his sexuality, he just began experimenting and never thought about practicing safe sex. But he lived in a small village where news traveled fast. When people started talking about two of his former sexual partners being HIV-positive, he realized the risks involved.

The young Surinamese man met a health navigator working for Foundation He+Hiv (FHH), a LINKAGES implementing partner. They had met before on social media, but the health navigator invited him for a one-on-one conversation at FHH.  The health navigator then determined that Clarence had been risky in his behavior and advised HIV testing. “At first I was reluctant to go for an HIV test. But, after thinking about it, I agreed.” Clarence’s health navigator motivated him to not be afraid and pointed out the importance of knowing his status for sure. Finally, on November 7, 2016, the health navigator accompanied him to a health care facility.

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Clarence looks out the window.   Photo credit: Christio Wijnhard

 

The outcome was devastating at first. “I have two dogs, Bruce and Chulo, and I could see their chain in front of me because that was what I wanted to use to kill myself.” Clarence was embraced by his health navigator, who shared with him some surprising information that changed the way he would view his HIV-positive status.

 

“He told me he was also infected with the virus. At first I would not believe it because he was a normal-looking man on the outside.” Looking back, Clarence can honestly say that this moment changed his life. “Hearing and seeing someone that was also infected, but looked very healthy, took away the feeling of being alone and lonely. It took away my fear of dying.”

When the time came to start medication, Clarence had some difficulties. The side effects were too much to handle, and he even stopped taking his medication because of them. His health navigator and the specialist at the Academic Hospital had serious talks with him. The doctor even told him bluntly: “If you don’t take your medication, you will die. Is that what you want?” Finally, the health navigator decided to bring Clarence for a talk with the project coordinator.

The project coordinator asked Clarence about his dreams and his goals. Clarence shared that he was worried about his cousin.  “She is my favorite cousin. I love her very much but she is risky in her behavior, like I was.” Then, they started talking about the possibility of her being HIV-positive as well. When the project coordinator asked Clarence what he would do if his cousin was infected and did not take her medicine, Clarence replied, “I would tell her not to be stupid and take her medication of course!”

Clarence paused for a moment, before saying, “Okay, I get it!”

Today, Clarence is still working on accepting his status. Twice a month he attends MSM support group sessions, which focus on self-empowerment. He meets up once every few weeks with his health navigator. He also uses the psychosocial care services at FHH, and he joined the group for the annual retreat of key population members who are living with HIV.

“I feel super fantastic! Because of the coaching, I was able to define what I liked. I am very interested in photography and I would like to take dance classes, and I might pursue a career as a male model someday.” Clarence also told his health navigator that he no longer wanted to be accompanied by him when he needs to visit the health care facility. “I feel empowered enough to visit health care facilities on my own.” Clarence also started writing about his feelings in a dairy.

“I feel great, really. And I want to work on improving myself because I want to be a good example for other people dealing with acceptance of their HIV status. I want them to know that it is not easy but if I can make these changes and be happy and work towards a good life living with HIV, so can they! I want to be their inspiration.”

 

Commission on the Status of Women & Transgender Women

Written by Beyonce Karungi, Executive Director, Transgender Equality Uganda

The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is the largest international gathering of governments and civil society dedicated to developing an agenda that promotes progress for women and girls. Each year, the UN brings together women and girls from all over the world to discuss issues that affect women from all spheres of life. Despite the sense of total inclusion, transgender women and girls are often underrepresented in this crucial space. Consequently, the transgender community faces a challenge in raising and addressing the issues specific to them.

The CSW recently emphasized inclusion of transgender people in its sustainable development goals. The discussion surrounding trans inclusion was unprecedented and a major credit to the UN organizers. Hopefully, this discussion continues to provide an ongoing dialogue that will work toward the improvement of the status of all women – including trans women – around the world.

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Beyonce Karungi presenting at a sex worker panel during CSW

I was one of the few transgender women present at the latest CSW. While there, I participated in many forums including development of the UN Women’s Strategic Plan development (2018-2021) at the UN headquarters. We lobbied UN women to include the transgender community in the strategic plan by connecting us with country offices and registering us to participate not only in trans-specific events but also in the main CSW discussions that typically include all women and girls.

At CSW, I also participated in a sex worker session focused on the conditions faced by this key population. Internationally, policy discourse has shifted in many ways to defend sex work as real work. Still, efforts to criminalize clients are unaligned with what sex workers need in order to be able to thrive as workers.

I was also involved in the Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Intersex (LBTI) women’s session. LBTI women are not explicitly mentioned as a vulnerable group in many spaces. This cultural stance and attitude is in large part internalized by LBTI people, which creates a strong obstacle to self-identification. The stigma surrounding LBTI women makes them a socially invisible community within general society. The result is that, with a few exceptions, the most vocal leadership of LBTI women’s rights has traditionally been men.

CSW participants discussed many issues, including peace and security for women and human rights defenders, sexual and reproductive health and rights, maternal health, gender-based violence, and family planning. Transgender women and girls continue to be excluded from the economic, political, and social sectors, which limits their access to education, health services, and employment.

While one of the main goals of the CSW is to empower all women and girls, transgender women remain unfairly marginalized.

The CSW needs to ensure that transgender people are represented and that data collection is supported so we can begin to advance the livelihood and well-being of transgender women everywhere. It is within the power of the CSW to include all women in discussions on women’s status in the world, and doing so will increase the awareness and importance of transgender inclusion, health, and rights.

Key Population Hero: Addressing stigma and discrimination among LGBT people in Kenya

Written by Levis Nderitu, co-founder, Sullivan Reed

Sullivan Reed is an organization in Nairobi, Kenya that specializes in the economic and social empowerment of LGBT people in Kenya, where homosexuality is criminalized and HIV prevalence is almost three times higher among men who have sex with men than the general population.

Many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Kenya are facing stigma and discrimination silently. They may not know how to access HIV services and, even if they do know, they wonder how will they be treated when they get there.

LGBT-friendly services do exist and we encourage people to use them. But not every provider is affirming. People are worried that they will be outed by medical staff, and with good reason. I’ve heard LGBT people talk of nurses calling other nurses over and “making an example” of them. I’ve heard of young LGBT people having their parents called. You can imagine how traumatizing this is.

People’s fears about accessing health care are compounded when they face other stigmatizing, even violent, situations. I saw this clearly recently when my friend’s boyfriend celebrated his birthday. He invited a few friends to his home, all of whom are LGBT. Then men, armed with sticks, broke in and started beating people. They said they did not want “people like [my friends]” in the neighborhood. Despite living there for two years without any complaints against them, my friends were evicted. It’s a tight-knit community and rumors soon spread. All those who had been there were scared; they had been exposed as LGBT and their lives were at risk.

Lots of LGBT people look at a situation like this and think “if I can’t even be happy in my own neighborhood, around people who know me, how do I then go to the hospital?” The impact of this type of intimidation is huge.

To help, we applied for funding through the International HIV/AIDS Alliance’s Rapid Response Fund, which issues emergency grants of up to $20,000 in 29 countries when stigma, discrimination, and violence threaten HIV services for LGBT people and MSM. Since its inception in October, the fund and has already received more than 235 applications.

The money came through quickly. We relocated all those in fear to a safe house and linked many of them to LGBT-friendly health services. Through the fund you can also apply for support for initiatives that will have a longer-term impact. I’m developing a mobile app to enable people to find LGBT-friendly services near them, and again I have turned to the Rapid Response Fund for help.

Many Kenyans are hostile to LGBT people, mainly because of the legal framework. But among younger people and in more cosmopolitan communities, attitudes have been improving. We have a new crop of people who believe in diversity and inclusion. I believe more and more straight people will begin to champion LGBT rights here and bring this community out of the margins.

We need to look at the issue of economic empowerment as many LGBT people struggle to find work. Some turn to sex work, which increases their vulnerability to HIV. We must enable people to support themselves; it’s a critical component of change.

As long as the existing penal code is in place, the fight will be tough. But when I look around me I see a lot of hope. Things are changing. Everyone should be able to live a full life, regardless of who they are and whom they love. We are working to make that happen.


To learn more about the Alliance’s Rapid Response Fund visit rapidresponsefund.org

 

 

Key Population Hero: I support TRANS rights, do you?

Written by Amitava Sarkar (preferred name – Amrita), Co-chair, IRGT

“Please help, somebody please help!” Despite my shouting, my two friends and I drew no attention from passersby. We were surrounded by at least 10 men who were beginning to get violent. This happened in Kolkata, a metropolitan city of India, also known as “City of Joy,” though sometimes it becomes “City of Horror” for trans people like us.

fullsizerenderGoddess Durga is the Goddess of Power, and she is worshiped in India and other places of the world, but in Kolkata she is celebrated with special zeal. Temporary temple-like structures (called Pandals) are created in and around the city, where she is worshipped by visitors from different parts of the state and country, and sometimes from outside the country as well. This incident took place in front of a huge crowd visiting one of these Pandals in South Kolkata. It was very difficult to rescue myself from that situation, but ultimately I was able to run away while the men were busy clearing space to torture the three of us. I remember that as I was trying get free, no one from the large crowd that had gathered came to our aid despite our pleas for help.

This is just one example of violence that took place in a public space, in a metropolitan city, and in front of huge crowd. One can easily imagine how frequent these experiences are for trans people, and how difficult it often is for transgender woman to escape from these acts of violence. Other kinds of violence (mainly gender-based) against transgender women take place everywhere—within families and by intimate partners, at educational institutes and work places, and when trying to access health services. Data[1] show that in 2016, 21 transgender people died from violence-related causes; however, I believe the number is much higher, because I can recall what is happening just in my own country. There was an “honor killing” of a trans women a couple of months ago, and one can imagine that many similar incidents are taking place around the world but are not documented.

The way out is to work at two different levels—building the capacity of the community to advocate for themselves and continuing effective advocacy initiatives for stakeholders and policymakers. My journey toward this goal started when I met JoAnne Keatley (co-chair, IRGT) for the first time in Mexico during the 2008 AIDS conference. After observing the handful of trans women represented and the limited coverage of trans issues in such an important and international conference, we discussed the need to build a global-level platform for trans advocacy. Finally, we are here today with IRGT, a global network of trans women and HIV, comprising 18 very active members from different parts of the globe who are leading trans activists and doing commendable jobs for our community.

IRGT seeks to safeguard the health and human rights of transgender people and is able to conduct this work through a variety of important partnerships. With LINKAGES we are working to:

  • Mobilize and sustain advocacy by trans communities for service improvements in the response to HIV and AIDS
  • Foster trans leadership skills to create a new generation of articulate, tech-savvy advocates who can present their constituencies’ needs to government, health care workers, and police
  • Provide technical support and tools to inform national policy, program design, and management for trans populations

Apart from this, IRGT is one of the 10 member organizations supported by Robert Carr Civil Society Networks Fund, to form the Consortium of Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) & Transgender Networks. This consortium is a coordinated effort to address the factors that affect MSM and transgender health and human rights, leverage our respective complementary strengths as advocacy and technical support providers, strengthen community responses via consolidated mechanisms for information exchange, and raise awareness through media outreach.

IRGT has received another important award from ViiV Healthcare for implementing training workshops for trans women and organizations spread across various parts of the globe. The project will conduct training of trainers with eminent trans leaders to help build the capacity of trans-led organizations.

Several other recent developments have raised the visibility of trans rights, many with the support of LINKAGES. This past summer, IRGT organized the first-ever trans pre-conference event in Durban, South Africa during AIDS 2016. IRGT also helped lead the development of the TRANSIT, global guideline on implementing HIV and STI programs for trans people, and has published studies about issues faced by trans women, the most recent of which is entitled, “Most Impacted Least Served: Ensuring the Meaningful Engagement of Transgender People in Global Fund Processes.”

My message to my community is this: identify your strong, positive qualities and begin using them for the development of yourself and our community. Believing in an alternative gender or sexual identity is not a crime. Don’t hide your talents and your identities; instead try to come out in true spirit to better serve yourself and your community. From my own experience I have realized that we have to make our own space and we have to support each other. Let’s stand together to take our movement forward for a better and more trans-friendly world, free from violence.

To learn more about IRGT please visit – http://transglobalactivism.org/


 

[1] http://www.hrc.org/resources/violence-against-the-transgender-community-in-2016