“My passion is fashion, I’d love to be a designer, design dresses,” says Rachelle*, 24, sounding wistful. She knows that being a trans woman makes her dream far-fetched.

It’s not because she lacks the talent, the ideas or the vision. But because she is a trans woman living in Haiti, a country where the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movement is still very much in its infancy and transgender identity in particular is little understood.

“I knew I was a woman from the time I was born,” says Rachelle. “I lived and thought as a girl, but I didn’t understand transgender at that time.”

Rejected by our families for being trans

It is a similar experience for Rachelle’s good friend, housemate and trans sister Bea*, also 24. She says: “Since being a child I knew that I was a woman, I was eight years old but I didn’t have the words to express how I felt because I didn’t have the vocabulary or know what to say, or how to explain to my parents who I really was.”

Both were rejected by their families when they tried to express their identity, and both have found it next to impossible to earn a living even though they have gone on to higher studies since leaving school. “I was working in a restaurant,” says Rachelle. “But the boss called me in one day and told me I had to dress like a man which I couldn’t do so I was fired.”

Bea says: “Trans identity isn’t recognised, so it’s difficult to find work. People wouldn’t accept me wearing women’s clothes or behaving like a woman at work.” Eloquent and direct, Bea is very matter of fact when speaking of her broken dreams, as if she got used to being let down a long time ago and no longer expects anything different.

“I’ve lost a lot of things in life because of my identity,” says Bea. “I should have graduated in hospitality and tourism but the person who funded my studies stopped paying for me because he didn’t want to pay for a trans, he called me queer, so I wasn’t able to graduate and had to leave part way through my studies.”

Safety in numbers

Having grown up in the coastal city of Petit-Goâve, Bea is now living in a communal house in Port-au-Prince alongside Rachelle and seven other transgender women who have all been threatened because of their identity. Some, including Rachelle, have been physically assaulted. “I’ve been attacked but I was afraid to go to the police station,” she says. “Police officers haven’t received training on trans identity so they wouldn’t have welcomed me. I felt like a person with no rights.”

The house where they are now has been rented by Action Communautaire pour l’Intégration des Femmes Vulnérables en Haiti (ACIFVH), a small organisation which has been supported  by Frontline AIDS through a Rapid Response Fund emergency grant.

“Life is good here,” says Rachelle. “We collaborate, when one of us has a problem we help each other. When I needed somebody, a shoulder to cry on, ACIFVH were there. When I needed a place to sleep, they intervened.”

Psychological and medical help

ACIFVH’s assistance has gone beyond providing a safe place to live. “We’ve had psychological and medical help,” says Bea. “We’ve been housed and fed. We had eight sessions with a psychologist and they were really good because I felt really ill at ease, depressed. With that help I’ve found a way through.”

Rachelle is equally buoyant, she says: “Now I feel like I’m starting a new life, I’m going to see how I can resume my studies in administrative sciences and start to work. I feel safe now.”

As part of their medical treatment, both women were tested for HIV and found not to be living with the virus. HIV prevalence among transgender women in Latin America and the Caribbean is thought to be a staggering 49 times higher than among the general population so it was crucial that Bea and Rachelle know their status.

A life or death situation

Haiti accounts for nearly half of annual new HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths in the Caribbean, and the Caribbean has the second highest HIV prevalence after sub-Saharan Africa. The HIV picture there is a complex one, exacerbated by extreme poverty, political instability and a lack of good quality health services.

Added to this is a sense of disaster fatigue from both governmental and non-governmental organisations, brought about by recent crises such as the devastating earthquake in 2010 and subsequent cholera epidemic, followed by Hurricane Matthew five years later. It’s well documented that marginalised groups such as the LGBT community become even more vulnerable in such circumstances.

Richecarde Val who – along with his wife Yaisah – co-founded ACIFVH, explains the impact of the epidemic on the transgender women that they work with. “One of the biggest challenges for the trans community in Haiti is HIV. First of all the men who have sex with trans women, or who are attracted to trans, don’t identify as men who have sex with men, or as gay. Those men can get infected and bring it to the trans community – nobody is educating such men.

“And secondly, trans women can’t go freely to a clinic like anybody else can because of their gender identity. They face discrimination and stigmatisation at the door. Sometimes they don’t even get in to see a doctor. So they’re afraid to go to the clinic.”

Life-saving support

Richecarde is thankful that ACIFVH received the emergency grant from Frontline AIDS so quickly and was able to relocate the women. The thought of how things could have otherwise turned out weighs heavily on him.

He says: “I would say that some of them could be dead now, because with no family support and no support from anywhere else, they would have had no choice but to stay in the neighbourhood. In the same neighbourhood from where we moved three of them, there was another and she got killed last year.

“For me it’s very personal because my wife is trans and she’s been through this same discrimination and stigma. We’re saving lives, taking people away from danger and giving them a better life.”

*names changed

Rachelle and Bea’s quotes are translated from French

ACIFVH received a grant from the Rapid Response Fund, which is managed by Frontline AIDS and funded by the Elton John AIDS Foundation. The Fund makes grants to LGBT and MSM organisations so that they can carry out urgent work to alleviate the stigma, discrimination and violence that threaten provision, access and uptake of HIV services for MSM and LGBT people.

 

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discrimination and stigmaHuman rightsLGBTRapid Response Fundsexual and reproductive health and rightsSexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI)Young transgender women