Aminah Washington is confident and proud of her identity as an African-American trans woman, but the Newark resident says it wasn’t always easy.
When she came out 15 years ago, like many transgender women, people discriminated against her. She couldn’t get a job, and she says her only way to survive was to become a sex worker.
“In certain situations you put yourself at risk, or you’re not educated enough to know that you are at risk but you just know that you need to survive,” Washington said.
Washington did not get HIV, but according to federal data, “transgender women who have sex with men are among the groups at highest risk for HIV infection.”
Rutgers associate professor of epidemiology Henry Raymond says because of all the discrimination transgender women face, it’s not always easy to find a job or a sexual partner, also having to cope with stress. He says all those factors may push them into high-risk behavior, and he says it’s not so cut and dry. Raymond conducted surveys in 2010, 2013, and 2016 with transgender women from one community in San Francisco.
“What the paper concludes, or one of our interpretations is that the rate of new infections is not as great as it used to be and the prevalence is staying pretty steady. And it seems to be more likely that older transwomen are infected and the younger ones are not. So that is really hopeful that as society maybe becomes less stigmatizing, people are reducing their risks,” Raymond said.
Rutgers School of Public Health Dean Perry Halkitis says younger generations now have medicine available to help prevent getting HIV, and they also have more access to education.
“The medical advances since 1996 bestow benefits on a younger generation of people that allows them to protect themselves more effectively than older people,” said Halkitis.
Raymond says his research is the first to document trends in HIV prevalence in transgender women. He says what it’s showing is programs are working.
“People who are marginally housed, are increasingly homeless, but it turns out it wasn’t the people who are already HIV infected. And that would suggest that the housing programs that are linked to HIV infection or HIV care are really working,” said Raymond.
The study also confirmed “disparities in higher HIV prevalence by black, Latino, and Asian race/ethnicity and lower education level persisted through 2016.”
Raymond believes the San Francisco-based research could give us clues to what is happening in the Garden State as we work to track trends with the trans community.
The sentiment was echoed by Halkitis.
“We see the epidemic of HIV in communities of color, we see it in gay men, and we see it in trans women and that’s what we see in New Jersey,” he said. “Our advantage is we have a governor now who has called for an end to AIDS by 2025.”
Washington got emotional as she talked about one of her best friends who died from HIV/AIDS a few years ago. She was also a transgender woman.
“It could be me, and it could be another one of my sisters, or another one of the trans population that I see on a daily basis,” Washington said.
The 33-year-old now works at the African American Office of Gay Concerns educating young adults on HIV/AIDS testing and prevention.