On Authenticity and Hope in the Fight Against HIV and AIDS

Positively Aware magazine's July-August 2013 issue takes on issues of stigma and shame as factors contributing to HIV infection rates -- and in the process tells us about authenticity and the power of hope.

Positively Aware Editor, Jeff Berry's beautifully worded editorial, "The Struggle to Be Authentic," is worth a read. He opens with this admission that will resonate with many people of transgender experience,

I have recently come to the realization that my struggle for authenticity is going to be a life-long journey. I feel as though there have been two “me’s” for as long as I can remember. There is the person inside myself with all of my hopes, fears, doubts, and dreams. Then there is the persona that I outwardly project to the rest of the world, whose behavior is “acceptable,” who fits the “norms,” while still reflecting bits and pieces of the “me” inside.

Berry's closing is even more explicit about the role of stigma and shame among populations that are vulnerable to HIV infection, 

Until we are able to put a voice to those things within ourselves and in our own communities that perpetuate shame and stigma, we will always be one step behind and trying to play catch-up. Until we are able to come from a place of authenticity, we can never fully address the blame, judgment, and stigma that drive and fuel this epidemic.

As a person living with AIDS, I am grateful for voices that continue to show that vulnerability and strength can and in many ways need to co-exist for change to happen. A needed reminder that stepping beyond shame is a life's work for some of us.

Berry's article introduces several feature articles addressing populations that are particularly vulnerable to HIV infection, including transgender people. Berry quotes a Facebook commenter (which happened to be me, Teo Drake) addressing concerns about the continued rate of new HIV infections,

Education is only part of the solution. People generally know condoms work, etc. [But] we [must] also make inroads into de-stigmatizing addiction and sex work, increasing access to treatment rather than criminalizing drug use, improving equity in access to care and economic justice, [ending] homelessness, beginning to bring a compassionate understanding to trans and gender non-conforming lives and a myriad of other ways our mainstream culture, and even the mainstream lesbian and gay culture, communicate who is valued and who is disposable.

One of the feature articles, "The Right to Be Healthy as Who You Are," by Cecelia Chung, breaks down some of the issues that make transgender people especially vulnerable.

Chung looks at issues of global health, including global leadership, health disparities and discrimination, as well as some innovative interventions aimed at transgender women of color who have been shown to be particularly vulnerable, even compared to transgender people more generally.

However, Chung closes with a more personal note about the power of hope,

Lately, there has been more discussion about HIV stigma and disclosure. Stigma and disclosure are all too familiar to most of us in the transgender community, as they go hand in hand with acceptance and rejection. ... Perhaps it would come as no surprise that many trans women who are at high risk of or living with HIV have also faced rejection by their families and local communities... Granted, stigma may not be the only influencing factor in many women’s lives. Other factors such as social support systems, education levels, and housing situations also play crucial roles in their health outcomes, but personally, as someone who has lived the life, survived, and tells the tale, I would venture to say that we should never underestimate the force of stigma nor the power of hope.

While we face similar barriers when compared to other populations living with HIV, trans women of color are more likely to experience stigma and family rejection before they are infected with HIV... Perhaps what trans women living with HIV really need is what all of us need—a cheerleader to stand by our side, reminding us hope is not lost and helping us discover new purposes that make each day worth waking up to.

Chung goes on to explain the critical role that community and family of choice have played in her life and survival. She says, "let’s not lose sight that an AIDS-free generation begins with a simple yet powerful practice—unconditional love."

I couldn't agree more. July 15 was the 18th anniversary of my HIV diagnosis. The medication and advancements in treatment have made living possible. It's the spiritual and emotional work I've done to live more and more authentically that have made that life worth living.

May we all find such "cheerleaders" in our lives to help us live into the power of authenticity, hope, and unconditional love.

Teo Drake

Teo Drake is a yoga and martial arts teacher, educator, and activist. As a queer-identified trans man living with AIDS, he has 101 reasons to not want to be present in his own skin. The physical and spiritual practice of yoga and Buddhist traditions made it possible to begin to heal and feel at home in his own body. As a yoga teacher, he works mainly with adults and children who do not have access to mainstream yoga venues for a variety of reasons. As an activist and educator, he works with institutions to increase queer and transgender individuals' access to care.

ArticleChris PaigeHIV-AIDS