Tori Cooper, the first Black Transgender Women on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, wears a “Stop Killing Black Trans Women” shirt.
Tori Cooper is the first Black Transgender Women appointed to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.

‘Can You See Me?’ Asks First Black Trans Woman on the HIV Presidential Council

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Tori Cooper wears a “Stop Killing Black Trans Women” shirt while declaring her love of house music and debunking misinformation on the ongoing HIV epidemic.

Cooper, who was appointed to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) in August, may be the highest-ranking Black transgender woman in the United States government—an achievement her mother is very proud of.

PACHA offers advice on HIV/AIDS-related policies, research and programs to the Secretary of Health & Human Services.

“I hope to, number one, bring more awareness to the plight of trans people and nonbinary people,” Cooper tells TheHub.News. “And then, really promote policy change that is much more equitable in the distribution of resources and access to care. And ultimately, making sure that fewer trans people and fewer nonbinary people are diagnosed with HIV.”

The trans community, specifically trans women of color, are disproportionately diagnosed with HIV. And their struggle goes largely underheard.

Dressed in an orange polka dot dress, Cooper addressed the audience at the United States Conference on Aids. Her opening line, “Can you see me?”

Over 60% of Black trans women have an HIV diagnosis, according to recent data from the CDC.

“When we talk about the numbers of trans people who are impacted by HIV, there is a truthful number, which would be a number that probably the CDC would have or AIDSVu,” said Cooper. “But accuracy is talking about impact and not just the actual numbers.”

Trans people are deprived of the resources they need to reach an undetectable viral load, at which people living with HIV can have sex with their partners without fear of transmission.

Lack of housing, access to education and meaningful employment are among the barriers facing trans people.

“Trans people. We aren’t dumb. We’re just as intelligent and bright as everyone else,” said Cooper. “But we have to deal with, not just bullying sometimes based on our race and our culture and our community, but also over our trans and nonbinary identities.”

With 75% of transgender students feeling unsafe at school, trans people are less likely to graduate than their cisgender counterparts. In turn, trans people are less likely to find a job with adequate healthcare that would reduce the risk of acquiring an HIV diagnosis.

PrEP is an incredibly effective medication for HIV prevention, but the sluggish roll out to anyone other than cisgender, white gay men meant Black trans women continued to contract HIV in droves.  The prevalence of clandestine relationships in the trans community also contributes to poor health outcomes and the culture of violence towards Black trans women.

“When folks understand that we’re real and our existence is as valid as everyone else’s, then what it does is it frees up our romantic and sexual partners from having to have clandestine relationships,” Cooper explains.

Cooper adds that when addressing the HIV epidemic in the Black trans community, awareness and education go hand-in-hand.

“If folks will take the time to educate themselves around who trans people are and, most importantly, who we are not,” said the council member. “It really brings to light how stupid, and yes I used that word, and archaic and demeaning that type of potential legislation is.”

Cooper has spent decades advocating for trans people living with HIV. She founded Advocates for Better Care Atlanta, LLC in 2015 and serves as the Director of Community Engagement for the Human Rights Campaign’s Transgender Justice Initiative.

What brought her to HIV and health equity work?

“It was simply the right thing to do,” she said.

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