So there I was, sitting in a room full of the world’s top HIV researchers, uncomfortably under-dressed in my Mr. Friendly t-shirt but not letting that stop me from asking the question I need answered.
“Dr. Molina, in your study on intermittent PrEP dosing among men who have sex with men (MSM), did you see or anticipate any differences in efficacy between the transgender gay men in your study versus the cisgender men? What have we learned about the 2+1+1 dosing for men who engage in receptive vaginal intercourse?”
I desperately need this information, you see, because every day I log into Facebook and respond to yet another question about HIV prevention from yet another trans guy who wants to protect himself from HIV and whose doctors won’t help him. I am a moderator of the PrEP Facts: Rethinking HIV Prevention and Sex discussion group where people from all over the world – research scientists, doctors, community organizers, and lay people alike – come to learn and digest the latest information about HIV prevention and safer sex strategies. There are a lot of trans folks and a myriad of gender identities present there. Many of us use this Facebook group as our primary source for medical information concerning HIV prevention because we cannot get adequate care from our doctors.
But then I ask the doctors why they’re failing us, and they say to me that they don’t have any data. They don’t know the answer. They can’t answer these questions without studies to back them up.
So I asked Dr. Jean-Michel Molina about the trans men in his study, with the naïve and unwarranted optimism that he would tell me something useful, something I could relay to the droves of trans men seeking me out as their last glimmer of hope for sexual health. He responded by telling me about the one trans woman in the study, with no mention of trans men at all. Another researcher in the room explained to me afterward that trans men were not included in this study. Dr. Sheena McCormack would later apologize to me that her PROUD study in the UK, about which I’d been on the edge of my seat for months to see results, also failed to include trans men.
I have been a participant in a PrEP research study at the University of Washington, as have many of my trans brothers in Seattle, so I know we’re showing up to do our part for medical science. Yet, even though we’re presenting ourselves, able and willing to offer our researchers abundant data about our bodies, at best these studies have not been designed to track the information we’re providing. Or, at worst, as was the case in both the IPERGAY and PROUD studies, the criteria for entry into the studies are designed in such a way that explicitly makes trans men ineligible altogether.
I want to let you in on a little secret: Transgender gay men are not heterosexual women. We do not have sex like women do. Our behavioral risk factors are the same as the behavioral risk factors of gay men, because – big surprise – we are gay men. Sometimes we have anal sex. Sometimes we have vaginal sex. We have sex in bathhouses, perhaps with 20 or more guys in one evening. Not all of us, but some. We cruise for hookups in the twilight hours at Volunteer Park. We meet guys on Scruff, Grindr, and Craigslist for casual one-offs. Some of us use poppers, crystal, and other drugs associated with the gay party-and-play scene. We are at high risk of HIV just like cisgender MSMs are, and we’re being ignored.
This cannot continue. We already have a 41 percent or greater rate of suicide attempts. For trans folks who survive society at large, we are then faced with incompetent medical professionals who use the wrong pronouns, who refuse to listen to us and who cannot or will not give us answers about how our bodies work. We have to fight for basic healthcare, fight for HIV prevention, and then ultimately fight for HIV treatment after we’ve been cast aside until it’s too late to prevent infection. Still, no matter how hard we fight, we cannot bypass our doctors to independently investigate research about the HIV prevention strategies that are optimal for us ourselves – because no such research exists. We are an invisible, dying group of gay men being left to face the threat of HIV with no one hearing our cries, no researchers taking notice and no public health officials acknowledging our plight.
The HIV epidemic of the 80s and 90s does not have to repeat itself. We have the tools and the knowledge to prevent HIV. We just need medical professionals, researchers and advocates to step up and make it happen now. Please, help us.