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Overcoming stigma

A stigma is a mark, a way to see or treat a person in a negative way because of their identity, their experiences or a health condition.  HIV stigma is when a person is treated badly because they are HIV positive or are thought to be HIV positive.

by Victoria Cordoba (she/her)

Photo of Victoria, a Latina British trans woman with long brown hair. She's wearing a t-shirt which says HIV positive and is at a demo with some other women and a man.

According to TGEU, Transgender women are 66 times as likely as the general population to contract HIV, and even in countries where HIV prevalence in the general population is high, trans women still face a disproportionate burden compared to cisgender men and women. The higher prevalence to have HIV also exposes us to a higher risk towards HIV-related stigma, which can be more harmful than the disease itself having a significant impact on our mental and emotional health.

A stigma is a mark, a way to see or treat a person in a negative way because of their identity (it could be gender, age, sexuality, race), their experiences (being an immigrant) or a health condition (from a disability to a disease).  HIV stigma is when a person is treated badly because they are HIV positive or are thought to be HIV positive. Stigmas are always based on stereotypes, discrimination and also be based on misleading or wrong information. HIV related stigma can lead to people thinking it’s unwise or even unsafe to talk about their HIV status. Self-stigma (also known as internalised stigma) happens when a person from a stigmatised group, for example a trans person living with HIV, internalises negative public attitudes and believes them to be true. This can have a range of impacts on a person’s mental and emotional health and what they feel comfortable doing – like starting a relationship or applying for a particular job. Self-stigma can even occur if a person has not directly experienced stigma or discrimination themselves.

So it is a vicious cycle because stigma leads to increased risks of HIV infection, drugs and alcohol, abuse, sex work, homelessness, incarceration, unemployment, attempted suicide, lack of family support, violence, and limited healthcare access.

In 2007, on a beautiful spring morning, I finally gathered the courage to test for HIV.  But I didn’t go back for the results straight away: my father had passed away from lung cancer and I couldn’t go to his funeral. I was away from Argentina, so I invited my mother to visit me. My mother arrived in October, and her arrival gave me the strength to go back to the hospital to get the test results. I was HIV positive. In that moment I thought my life was over. All my dearest friends lost to AIDS came to my mind. I was sure I was going to follow. And even when my mother was with me during those days, I was not able to tell her the news. How could I possibly do that to her? We were both grieving the loss of my father, her husband.

I managed to go through the whole month of her visit with a smile on my face. Inside of me I was scared, fearing death, but I didn’t want to ruin her visit.  Only a few months later, I was brave enough to face my treatment. London hospitals offered the latest combination therapy that would help the virus become undetectable and untransmittable.

Photo of Victoria, a Latina British trans woman with long brown hair.

Those early days were not easy. Getting used to the idea of having “this” in my body… in my life. I only told a few people about it. Very close friends, and also my family.

For many years now, 14 to be precise, the HIV virus has been under control in my body. That means I am undetectable and untransmittable. I can’t pass it on to others, and it does not show up as before. But even when the virus has been controlled my stigma still prevails. Especially my own stigma, the one from me against myself. A few months ago I wrote this text, deciding to leaving it right there, announcing it to the world, via my social media. Saying to the world that I am a trans woman, I am an immigrant, I am an undetectable and untransmittable HIV positive person and I also have value because I am strong and I am resilient. I dedicated my post to all the beautiful friends I lost on the way, as I made a promise to them that I will stay here and make the best of it for me and for the rest.

Since that post, I have intensified my work for the trans and non-binary communities. I spoke at Parliament on the topic of Trans, HIV and Access to Healthcare. I was also part of the Amsterdam Fast Track Cities Conference this year. Giving back to my community felt like an inspiring way to advance the work within myself and for others. I trained as a life coach and mentor, and my aim now is to help other trans people go through the journey, with particular interest in trans women who are also immigrants and HIV positive like myself.

As a trans, Latina British woman, I have faced many challenges on my journey, but I am fortunate to have found a supportive community that has helped me forge a new path forward. As a life coach, mentor, and now Director at CliniQ, I am more determined than ever to continue the fight against HIV-related stigma faced by trans people. My goal is to create a world where everyone is accepted and valued for who they are, regardless of their gender identity, sexual orientation, or HIV status. Together, we can make a difference and create a more inclusive and supportive society for all.

The work ahead of us all is big, and we need to work towards creating education to end stigma, work towards access to affordable housing to end stigma. Have better access to jobs to end stigma. Works towards safe spaces where we can tell our life stories without prejudice to share who we are to end stigma. We need to keep designing access to healthcare that is welcoming and friendly towards the trans and non-binary community.  Stigma is deeply traumatic and it affects every aspect of our lives.

Given the ongoing vilification of the trans community by many media outlets, coupled with the current political climate, trans people are living in a state of constant fear and isolation. We cannot allow this to continue. It is our responsibility to come together and take action to address these issues head-on. We must demand that media outlets and politicians stop their harmful rhetoric and start treating trans people with the respect and dignity we deserve.

We must demand a society where trans people can live without fear or stigma. I invite you to work together to create a world where this is a reality. This is not a question for some of us to consider; it is a call to action for all of us.

You can visit Victoria’s website at www.victoriacordoba.com

Photo of Victoria, a Latina British trans woman with long brown hair. She's holding a trans flag and posing for a photo with a drag queen.