Dignity Amidst COVID-19: Trans Youth Leading the Response - Della's Story

Posted on Oct 23, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented humanitarian crisis that is claiming lives, destroying livelihoods and disrupting economies across the world. With the support of UNAIDS, the Asia Pacific Transgender Network (APTN) and Youth LEAD have worked together to increase the visibility and voices of trans and gender diverse youth leaders throughout Asia and the Pacific.

Della, a young trans woman activist living with HIV, protecting her community in Indonesia

I am Della from South Sumatra, Indonesia. I am a 23-years old transgender woman and a youth activist for people living with HIV in Indonesia. As a young trans woman living with HIV, I have been actively working in the Srikandi Sejati Foundation support group. In this group, I am responsible for providing information related to health service access and guiding other trans women living with HIV throughout the process of accepting themselves and living their everyday life.   

Since I was six years old, I was sure about my gender identity. I used to spend long afternoons playing with my sister, wearing her clothes and feeling like I was a beautiful little girl too. Through the years, my sister has been my best friend; she helped to discover my feminine side and to realise that I was a trans kid. My sister was the first person to accept me as I am, showing me the importance of loving and appreciating myself without caring what others think. She helped me to explain to my parents how I was feeling and tried to make them understand that I was a girl. In the beginning, they rejected the idea and wanted to force me to wear boys’ clothes. Still, my sister was always there to support and protect me. I realised that after showing with confidence to my parents who I was, they started to accept me and support me as well.

My journey as a young trans leader started because of my interest in working with my community. Throughout the years, I have developed a vast network of young trans people that accepted me and came to me for guidance and support. In the beginning, I used to guide and support them because the majority of them were my closest friends. With time, the community has grown and other people started to come to me asking for support. I also learned to identify the needs of my community and realised that HIV was a big issue. So I decided to reach out to organisations and other leaders in Jakarta to learn more about it and explore other support groups for young trans people living with HIV. After meeting one of the senior leaders in our community, "Debi", I was invited to come to Jakarta to find better job opportunities. Once I moved to Jakarta, Debi taught me the importance of regularly undergoing STI and HIV testing and introduced me to Srikandi Sejati Foundation, who welcomed and provided me with free HIV testing and counselling.  After realising that I have HIV, I was baffled and sad. I struggled to let my family know about it and felt like I wasn't ready for this. It took me almost one year to feel cheerful about life again. But through Srikandi Sejati Foundation’s support and guidance, I felt encouraged and empowered to continue with my life. I decided to become a change maker to prevent others from going through my same experience. I started working with Srikandi Sejati Foundation, informing my community on HIV and STI prevention and treatment. Nowadays, I feel so grateful for my life that allows me to use my story to inspire and protect others. I feel lucky and honoured to represent and protect our community in Indonesia. 

Young transgender activists leading the response to COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to create a devastating economic impact on the trans community. Most of us work as sex workers or buskers (street performers) on the streets, and since the outbreak of COVID-19 and subsequent lockdowns, there are no customers. We are not allowed to go out to the streets, and most of my friends can't afford to pay their rents and daily expenses. 

There are additional challenges for those of us who are living with HIV. Even though I never had any difficulty in accessing my medicines or medical services, and the government is making significant efforts to keep providing access to HIV treatment and medical check-ups, many of my friends cannot afford transportation to the medical centres to receive treatment. 

Together with Srikandi Sejati Foundation and the support from APTN through its Aidsfonds COVID-19 response fund, we have been able to distribute food, hand sanitisers and masks, and provide some funding for travelling to access HIV treatment and medical check-ups. We have also been providing some workshops on health protocols for young trans women to teach them how to use preventative actions while working and protecting themselves and their clients from the coronavirus. Srikandi Sejati Foundation also worked with support from APTN to help trans women in five districts in DKI Jakarta province. Together, they have positively provided access to health services, food resources, adherence to antiretroviral (ARV) drugs consumption, and mental health support. As a result, 30 trans women have benefited from the project to remain empowered and safe during the pandemic. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded our societies how vulnerable humanity is. For the first time, I feel like others understand the difficulties of living with a virus threatening your life. I hope that the pandemic teaches us not to discriminate or reject people for their medical conditions, as viruses don't differentiate among people. The whole world has put together their efforts to protect their people from this virus. I believe that we can learn from this lesson and in the same way in the future, aim to put global efforts and collaborations towards HIV prevention. 

These recent years have provided incredible life lessons for me. I learned how to be a leader in my community and also how to overcome my fear of stigma and discrimination. As a trans youth leader activist for people living with HIV, I have finally accepted myself and my HIV status. I feel very proud of who I am today and feel very excited about the future and the opportunity of working together with other young trans leaders living with HIV, to protect and support our community. 

For all the young trans people living with HIV, I know that is not an easy process and that it might take you some time to accept your status. But I know that deep down, you have the courage to overcome this situation and reach out for help and support. You are not alone in this, and through the support of your friends, family and community, you will overcome this and will continue with your life. Take care of your bodies, your immune system and your communities. 

Written by: Gabriela Romero
Edited by: Eddy Rudram (Youth LEAD), Raine Cortes (APTN), Christopher Khor (APTN), Cole Young (APTN).