Today is National HIV Transgender HIV Awareness Day and Achim Howard is at the forefront of the transgender HIV activism.
Howard, the Washington, D.C.-based founder of the social activist group Trans Men Rising, is an advocate for black transgender men living with HIV. As a sexual assault survivor, Howard also identifies with the #MeToo movement, though he faces different headwinds as a black, trans man. After he sought care for the assualt he received a call from his doctor saying he needed to come in right away.
Howard worried that the assault left him with an STI, or worse, pregnant. He recalls, “[The doctor] told me I wasn’t pregnant, but she said, ‘I’m sorry to tell you that you have HIV.’”
Howard began treatment at Whitman-Walker Health in Washington, D.C., where his care included a therapist and providers who called and checked on him, even on their days off.
After the assault Howard recalls, “I couldn’t sleep at night. So, to make sure I’d be able to sleep, I’d bring a bottle of wine to [my brother’s] house… and drink until I passed out. I didn’t want to think about anything. I just wanted to sleep.”
Howard’s brother, who is gay, grew increasingly concerned, and eventually confronted him, saying that they should be able to talk about anything. “I ended up telling him I was positive — and that’s when my brother told me he was positive, too,” Howard recalls.
After hearing someone at a support group talking about taking a huge number of pills for his HIV, and the medications’ side effects, Howard was shaken, and told his brother he “wasn’t going back.”
But the two poz brothers tackled HIV together, going to support groups and doctors, and attending retreats, and conferences.
“I was learning about myself. I was learning about HIV, and I was learning how to live with HIV,” Howard says. But he noticed event organizers would often lump trans people and gay men together in groups. And they would often misgender him. So, he attempted to educate folks. Howard would explain what being a trans man was, as opposed to being a trans woman. “It was like they were missing the whole point.”
He also realized most HIV support groups were tailored to gay men and trans women, without addressing the needs of trans men.
“I became an advocate for trans men living with HIV when I became positive,” Howard says now. Along with other HIV-positive trans men of color, Howard founded Trans Men Rising (@TransMenRising), to help educate people. He’s also disturbed by the alarming HIV rates in the black community.
“It’s getting out of hand,” he laments, fearing efforts to address those disparities will fall short. “It’s hard because there’s limited funding and the current administration is not on any of our sides. Look at the proposed bill Trump has put out,” he says of the administration’s intentions to slash funding for HIV-related programs.
If funding wasn’t a barrier, Howard would like to raise awareness around HIV for
trans masculine individuals, whether they are men, women,
or young people.
“I want to educate the children, like from the get-go. There are trans men who are becoming comfortable with who they are at a younger age,” he says, and they need HIV education “starting as early as middle school.”
Maybe then, he says, “we can end the rise of HIV transmission rates in my community.”