On June 5, 1981 the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported unusual clusters of Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) in 5 homosexual men in Los Angeles in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. This was 4 days before my 9th birthday. Over the next 18 months, other cases were discovered in cities throughout the country. This disease was originally called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRIDS). By August of 1982 it had been renamed to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). By May of 1986, the virus that causes AIDS had been isolated and was named HIV. I was almost 14.
Spending the first years of the AIDS epidemic in a fundamentalist Christian setting strongly colored my initial impressions and understanding of this disease. So many in the Christian community saw this as a gay disease that was God’s wrath for living a homosexual “lifestyle.” It was almost inevitable that my own beliefs would mirror those of the community around me. I am ashamed to say that for many years I felt little remorse or sympathy for the thousands of people, primarily gay men, who died horrific deaths from AIDS. So many of us stood by and did nothing to help, believing that those who died deserved their fate. Many prominent Christian leaders would justify their inaction by blaming the victims, quoting Romans 1:27 “In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.” (NIV 1984 edition)
These years were also the beginning of my own understanding and exploration of sex and sexuality. I discovered I was gay during the same years gay men were dying in record numbers. AIDS was in the news a lot then, and those around me used it to demonize gay men and their “perverted lifestyles,” saying that those who were afflicted were under God’s wrath. AIDS became just one more punishment I had to try to avoid, just one more reason I had to find any way I could to stop being gay. While trying to run away from my own sexuality, I also turned my back on thousands of people who, I was convinced, deserved their own deaths. It wasn’t until years later, when I left Christianity, that I realized just how terribly wrong I had been.
I can never make up for my early beliefs about AIDS and those who contracted the disease. I can never apologize to those who died while I believed their deaths were somehow just. I was part of the problem that allowed thousands to die needlessly. My community stood by in approval merely because those who were dying were part of a marginalized minority. A minority I now belong to.
I’ve grown a lot since AIDS was first discovered. I have broken free of the early programming that the disease is somehow God’s wrath. However, I am still ignorant of the full personal impact of what it means to live with HIV or have loved ones who have been lost to AIDS. This epidemic has had an incalculable effect on the gay community and on gay culture, but my only part in this history is one of which I am deeply ashamed.
We will never be able to fully deal with the AIDS epidemic until we end the stigmatization of those who are touched by the disease. Standing now as a member of the community that has born the brunt of the devastation from HIV/AIDS, I can work towards cultivating greater empathy and understanding, not only in myself but in the world around me.
Every year on the 20th of November, the trans community gathers together to memorialize those who were killed during the previous year. This year, there were 265 known deaths. The top three countries for deaths this year are:
- Brazil – 126
- Mexico – 48
- United States – 15
The list is complied not just as a list of names (although 57 this year were nameless), but includes other information such as age, date of death, place of death, cause of death and corresponding remarks when any of this information is known. A thorough reading of the list is not for the faint of heart. This year, 123 people were reportedly shot. Some by drive by shootings. Some by execution. One woman in Brazil was walking in a public square with a child when a man walked up to them and shot both of them in the face. The child was not counted, but was killed by the same transphobia. Another transwoman in Turkey was shot by her brother, who was given a decreased sentence under the argument that he was under “heavy provocation.” Fifty were reportedly beaten or stoned to death. One person in Brazil was tortured and beaten by a mob of up to 400 people. Fifty were reportedly stabbed to death. One woman in Mexico was killed by her neighbor because the neighbor believed himself a savior like Jesus who killed the homosexual because he was a demon and did not want him to do further harm (another example of how those who hate us don’t distinguish between gay and trans). Thirteen were reportedly strangled. One woman in Brazil was found hanging from a bridge. Twelve of the reports specifically noted that the victim had been tortured. A few of those specified mutilations, amputations or burns to the genitals. One woman in South Africa had her genitals cut off and put into her mouth. Six were reportedly decapitated and two were dismembered. Five people were killed by police or security guards. One woman in Honduras was taken from her home by people who said they were agents of the National Office of Investigative Crimes under the pretense that she was needed for an investigation of an offender they were prosecuting. When the family went to the police station the next day they found that no one had been detained but their family member’s body had been found with multiple shot wounds to the face.
On and on, the heartbreak of lives cut short just because of who they were or how they lived. As I read through each one, I started wondering about the lives of their friends and families left behind to deal with the loss. I couldn’t imagine how the family of the woman in Honduras felt when they found out their loved one had been killed by the people who took her away. How many others in this list still had family connections? Did their families even know they had been killed, or why? What about the 57 that did not have a name listed? Do they even have anyone who will miss them now that they are gone? Will the friends and families of those who have been killed find justice? Does the world think so little of our lives? One of the nameless women in Venezuela was lying in the street, alive, for hours and no one came to help. A neighbor called the local authorities, but no one bothered to come.
Some of the notes indicated that the motives of the killers may not have been specifically about trans issues, but it is hard to say what part their gender identity played in their murders. And there are probably many more that we will never know about. It’s difficult to get detailed information on a group of people who are routinely forced to conceal themselves. Countless other trans people will never make it into this list for the simple fact that they took their own lives. Suicides are not counted, although it would be hard to get any kind of an accurate count. All we do know about suicide statistics for trans people is that 41% of us admit to having tried to kill ourselves at some point. We’re the ones who survived. How many more don’t, and how many of those end their life without ever telling anyone the real reason why?
I am somewhat ashamed to say that this is the first year I’ve actually read the whole list. Not just the list of names, but the entire list detailing how they were killed. Somehow, only reading the names removed the horror of it all. But in removing the horror, it also removes some of the anger at the senselessness of each death. Maybe I wanted to believe that these are things that happen to other people, but could never happen to me. Granted, as a white, passable trans man I am less at risk for violence than my trans sisters, especially my trans sisters of color, and those who live in very homophobic/transphobic countries. But there were trans men on the list, and trans people from countries that consider themselves diverse. I am very privileged that I live in a country that is tolerant of diversity and I don’t for a moment take that for granted. But this privilege also means that I feel an obligation to do what I can to make a better world for all trans people.
I hate the fact that the major “Trans” day is one that is dedicated to all of the lives lost. A day of mourning those who have died and a reminder of how difficult it is to be trans in today’s society. The major societal narrative is that the trans life is so hard that it’s not really worth living. Yes, the trans life is hard, and I’ll admit to wishing I could end it more times that I really want to count. But we need to find a way to make things better, because it doesn’t have to be this hard. I hope for a time when instead of a day of remembrance, we can have a day of celebration. A day dedicated to celebrating all of the wonderful and unique things there are about being a trans person. Celebrating the diversity we bring to a world that all too often sees in black and white. Celebrating the light we shine because the world would be a little darker without us here.