Human Rights Watch | Living at Risk: Transgender Women, HIV, and Human Rights in South Florida

For this report, Human Rights Watch investigated access to health care, including HIV prevention and treatment, for women of trans experience in south Florida. We administered 125 survey questionnaires among trans women in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, two counties with the highest rates of new HIV infections in the country. These questionnaires, and the more than 100 interviews with trans women, their advocates, and HIV service providers indicated that many trans women in south Florida, particularly women of color, experience high HIV risk as a result of multiple factors, with poverty and lack of health insurance standing out as primary vulnerabilities. More than 63 percent of survey participants reported income of less than $10,000 per year, more than half were unemployed, and one of three were in “unstable” housing situations. This data is consistent with national surveys showing that many trans people live in extreme poverty and are three times more likely to be unemployed than those in the general population.

Nearly half of survey participants – 45 percent – had no health insurance. This alarming reality is tied to Florida’s refusal to expand its Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act, a decision that has left hundreds of thousands of low income and working Floridians without access to health insurance. It is a decision that has a severe impact on transgender women, who are among the most impoverished residents of the state. Medicaid expansion could dramatically improve access to health care for trans individuals, many of whom would be included in its coverage of adults without dependents. Access to Medicaid could increase options for trans women as they attempt to locate gender-affirming health care in their community, providing vital access to HIV prevention and treatment.

Nationally, one of five trans women has been incarcerated, with African-American trans women three times more likely to face arrest than their white counterparts. Many trans women often turn to sex work in order to survive, leaving them vulnerable to police abuse and criminal charges that can begin, and perpetuate, a cycle of unemployment and lack of income. In the Human Rights Watch survey, more than half of respondents said they had been arrested at least once. Involvement in the criminal justice system increases HIV risk – even short jail stays have been shown to have negative health outcomes. Jails and prisons are also dangerous places for trans women, who report alarming rates of sexual assault in detention.

As trans women in Florida and throughout the US are struggling to access HIV prevention and care, the Trump administration has pressed forward with policies that will erode key LGBT rights protections and erect new barriers to their enjoyment of the right to health. The right to health does not guarantee to everyone a right to be healthy. Rather, its realization requires governments to implement policies that promote access to health care without discrimination, with particular attention to those facing the most barriers to care – low income persons, women, minorities, people with disabilities, and others.

Since Inauguration Day 2017, President Trump has moved in the opposite direction with a policy agenda that has sought repeal of the Affordable Care Act, restrictions on Medicaid access, and the rollback of regulations that protect LGBT Americans from discrimination. The rights of trans people are specifically threatened, with attempts to ban trans soldiers from the military, eliminate protections in federal law and policy that protect trans people from discrimination in employment and health care on the basis of gender identity, and weaken protections for transgender federal prisoners. For trans women, who face pervasive discrimination in employment and health care settings, the rollback of existing protections could have a particularly devastating impact.

In this increasingly hostile environment, trans women are in greater danger than ever and in greater need of federal and state support. For health officials, few questions remain about what to do to reduce HIV infection among trans women. But without commitment by both federal and state policymakers to take these steps and remain accountable for doing so, the lives and health of trans women will remain at risk, and the crisis will continue

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