Rolling Out

Francesca Schuman is transgender and surviving HIV stigma

 Francesca Schuman (Photo Credit: Mo Barnes for Steed Media Services)
Francesca Schuman (Photo Credit: Mo Barnes for Steed Media Services)

For Francesca Schuman a brutal rape after performing as a drag queen left her infected with HIV. However, she has not let that stop her from letting others know about the prevalence, stigma and cost of the disease. Some people think that a few pills are all that they need to take and they will be cured of HI/AIDS; however, it isn’t that simple and most often, if those pills aren’t covered by insurance, your life is shortened.

Where are you from?
I am from Columbus, Ohio.

Why did you become an HIV activist?
Let me mention that before I was infected, I was formerly a drag queen. As a performer, I became aware of the dangers of HIV in the community and I became a very passionate and powerful activist.

How did you become infected with HIV?
I’ve been living with HIV since 1999. I was raped by an HIV-infected man on the way home from a performance.

Do you think young people today understand the risk of HIV infection?
I believe that young people today are just not aware of the risk of HIV honestly. We don’t teach safe sex education in our schools, we are not allowed to talk about the subject in schools and it’s a disservice to our children.

What role does sexual identity play in HIV infection?
I think that sexual identity as well as gender identity crosses many borders. HIV does not discriminate. These borders [are] sexual, cultural economic and racial. When it comes it HIV risk, it just doesn’t matter.

What role do you think the drug Truvada and PreP has had in community when it comes to HIV risk and sexual behavior?
I believe that Truvada and Prep is having a significant difference in HIV infection. The problem is that it’s not readily available in communities that really need the drugs. It also has presented some negative casual sex behavior when it comes to hooking up.

For many, not having the money to pay for HIV drugs is a crisis. What is the cost of staying alive when you have HIV?
If I did not have Medicare, the cost of my HIV medications would be $10K per month.

What should the federal government be doing right know when it comes to HIV awareness and getting medication to those infected?
Our government should be putting a block on the price gouging of vital HIV medications. We should also be eliminating laws that stigmatize and criminalize people with HIV. For example, many of our states have laws on the books that even if you do not know you are HIV positive and have sex with a person, you can be fined for felonious assault and face prison time. However, if a person has other STDs like syphilis or gonorrhea, they are not punished the same way as a person with HIV.

In Atlanta, the transgender community has a high incidence of HIV. Many say that this comes from survival sex — prostitution out of financial need. This includes hormone therapy for gender transition. Do you see this in Columbus, also?
I see it everywhere I travel. It is staggering to me as a transgender woman to see so many transgender women of color who are highly infected engaging in so much sex work. It is also hard for a transgender person to get a job and try to maintain their sexual identity. Many companies discriminate against transgender people in the workplace.

What would you like to say in closing?
I would say this: become aware; don’t be afraid. Only have fear of the things that you don’t know and understand. Don’t let ignorance of HIV stop you from living … your life.

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