On a warm, spring afternoon in 2005, I sat in the rainbow-painted offices of my southern California LGBT Center. The Marketing Director with whom I was meeting began to compare the communications strategy we were discussing with certain awareness campaigns used in the HIV/AIDS prevention movement. He stopped abruptly. Rethinking his audience, he said “or for you lesbians, I guess I should say breast cancer.” And so, there it was. AIDS was for gay boys; breast cancer was for gay girls.

Now, I’m not denying that breast cancer is an issue for many lesbians—we are, in fact, women. And for those of us without personal or familial experience, there are Melissa Etheridge, Dana Fairbanks, and the L Word’s recent Lifecycle ride. But this was the first time I heard out loud what had been the subtle message for years: HIV/AIDS is not a lesbian issue.

Queer history (and herstory) has much to say about this, I’m sure. But as a young lesbian with an entirely Christian education, I have only minimal knowledge of the role HIV/AIDS has played between gay and lesbian communities, or of how the struggle for government recognition of this epidemic has furthered the rights of LGBT people in the US. It is clear to me, however, that HIV/AIDS has been a huge issue for gay men for more than 25 years.

More recently, women have been disproportionately infected with HIV both in the US and around the world. The face of HIV and AIDS has expanded. And while misconception, stigma, and stereotype still greatly dictate perception regarding who is at risk and to what degree, we have largely accepted the fact that women are being infected with HIV at alarming rates.

I must admit, as a lesbian, I have felt a little lucky on this issue. I have been free to blissfully ignore this terror that mandated behavioral change for the rest of the population. My Sapphic sisters and I were “low risk,” weren’t we? Sure, one of us could become infected through the occasional meandering jaunt into hetero sex, or through a blood transfusion or needle sharing, but the rate of transmission between lesbians was extremely low—if not completely absent.

A Centers for Disease Control fact sheet entitled, “HIV/AIDS among Women Who Have Sex with Women,” released in 2006, states “To date, there are no confirmed cases of female-to-female sexual transmission of HIV in the United States.” This report goes on to explain that most HIV infected women who had sex with women had other factors that put them at risk. We were home free!

In 2008, a few years after my LGBT center awakening, I found myself managing the production of an international, HIV awareness campaign. I was in New York City, where presumably, everyone knows everything about everything, and if you’re not here, then you’re probably light years behind. There still, in the know-it-all capital of the world, the question kept coming up: “Why is a lesbian working on HIV/AIDS?” This question was put forward in my interview, by funding agencies, and as a potential publicity strategy.
Well, at first, my answer was easy: HIV/AIDS is an epidemic that affects all people. Disproportionately, this disease affects women and gay men. Being a gay woman, I sympathize with both of these categories, yet I think it paramount that the talent and commitment of all groups, regardless of rates of infection or affectedness, be brought to bear in fighting this epidemic.

I had no clue that what makes lesbians in some countries most at risk for HIV is simply the fact that they are lesbian.

In South Africa, I met lesbians who had been brutally raped by men who were attempting to “change” them. As if a violent rape would be such a great experience for a woman, she would be convinced she was missing out on something wonderful and immediately change her orientation—as if such a thing were even possible. There was one woman, in particular, whose story pierced me deeply.

Her name was Lydia, but she called herself “Bazooka” either because of her potency on the soccer field or as a means of self empowerment. Bazooka was gang raped 9 years ago because of her sexuality. She has scars on her face and on her hands testifying to the brutality of her experience. Other constant reminders of her trauma include the unchecked freedom of her attackers, her twins, and her HIV positive status.

To prepare for her on-camera interview, Bazooka put on a favorite outfit, went through hair and make up, and choked up as lip gloss was applied for the first time in years. We all stood by in agony as Bazooka told her story. We felt gutted when she said, “I’m a lesbian; I never wanted children to come out of my body, but I had no choice.”

I still shudder at the feeling of powerlessness evoked by the thought of a gang attack. Bazooka reminded me that any woman’s rape is every woman’s rape. We all become a little less free when we realize we could be a target. HIV is an opportunistic virus. It seeks only to survive and multiply.

These days my answer to the question “why is a lesbian working in HIV/AIDS?” is both easier and more difficult. Suffice it to say: I have been “affected.”

To watch Bazooka’s interview and learn more about the lives of people living with HIV or AIDS, go to www.doeshivlooklikeme.org.