December 1 is World AIDS Day. This excerpt of Indian Blood: HIV and Colonial Trauma in San Francisco’s Two-Spirit Community, by Andrew J. Jolivette, looks closely at the ways in which the Two-Spirit community has been impacted by HIV/AIDS and offers a path toward a better understanding of and by the Indigenous world.
Burning sage fills the room at the Native American AIDS Project in San Francisco with pungent smoke. It’s a cold winter day when I begin my first focus group with gay, Two-Spirit, and transgender American Indians who also identify as mixed-race. As each participant enters the room, I introduce myself and explain that the goal of this project is to understand how we can reduce rates of HIV/AIDS infection in American Indian and Indigenous communities. I also suggest that this is a story about healing, not about sickness. This is, I tell them, a story that will produce meaningful interventions for other American Indian people in San Francisco and across the United States.
As prayers are offered for the office space to become ceremonial and safe, I can see the members of the group begin to stand closer together. One participant, an older man in his fifties, speaks first. His tone, as he tells of his transition from the reservation in Nevada to urban life in San Francisco, is one of authority. He describes unbelievable trauma and yet there is hope in his message. He recalls a time when San Francisco was a beacon for gay, Two-Spirit, and transgender Natives, but explains that there has since been a decline in leadership within the community. Other participants are nodding in agreement. A transgender participant in her early forties suggests that the only way a community can heal is if it remains a community. I hear the relevance of this insight to HIV prevention efforts: focusing on behavioral change at the individual level causes a greater degree of stigmatization and isolation, which in turn increase harmful behaviors and lead to higher HIV transmission risk. Continue reading