The politics of HIV/AIDS have evolved over the years, from division and public hysteria to a global movement for health justice. But despite progress in fighting the epidemic, one community still faces an acute HIV crisis, representing the social and public health challenges left yet unresolved. A study on the experience of transgender sex workers reveals the myriad risks facing a group who are systematically marginalized from the public conversation on HIV—when they should actually be at the center of it.
The report, published by Red Umbrella Project, National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), and Best Practices Policy Project (BPPP), analyzes recent survey data showing that “trans people with sex trade experience are over 12 times more likely to be living with HIV than trans people who have never been sex workers and 25 times more likely to be HIV positive than the general population in the United States.” In cities like Washington, DC, where nearly three quarters of trans sex workers report living with HIV, every time a sex worker gets harassed by beat cops, unfairly rejected for a job or denied appropriate medical care, she is pushed further into the social instability that exacerbates the HIV crisis. Yet advocates say that federal HIV/AIDS strategy continues to ignore their plight.
For transgender people already burdened by social stigma, critics argue that “pervasive profiling” by police further threatens safety and access to healthcare. Advocates have for years campaigned against particularly aggressive profiling practices, such as the use of condoms as evidence of prostitution. But despite some reforms aiming to curb anti-condom crusades in New York City, DC, and San Francisco, BPPP says these practices persist:
Because the criminalization of sex work is so entrenched nationwide, in practice the police continue to undermine sex workers’ safety with impunity even after these intensive campaigns to end the use of condoms as evidence and to improve police/community relations.
Rights activist Monica Jones sees the gap between policy and practice playing out in Phoenix, where a controversial anti-prostitution campaign, Project Rose, has led to mass arrests and coerced “rehabilitation” of women, including Jones herself. Police continue to target trans women, she says, based on appearance, race, or what’s in their purse: “Women and transpeople having condoms on them is criminalized, whereas a white cis male having condoms on him is looked at as safe-sex practice.”