AIDS2018: Humans in the Age of HIV-Carmen is impossible to miss

By Nomatter Ndebele

Carmen is impossible to miss. She comes sauntering down the road with her luscious  black locks bouncing gently behind her, as she moves closer she casually drops her arms and reveals her toned abdomen, sporting a tattoo that rises to the side of her midriff.

Carmen is a transgender person who does sex work. Yesterday we met her as Clinton.

Pic by Joyrene Kramer

You wouldn’t say this was the same fidgety man we met in the blistering cold yesterday, trying to make his way to the drug dealer to calm his morning nerves. Today, Clinton is no more, and we are greeted by the beautiful Carmen.

Today, her face is softer, she is visibly more gentle and her voice has a softer tone to it. Her face is meticulously done up, highlighted and contoured to absolute perfection. She is a beautiful woman, with piercing  hazel eyes and once they settle on you, she’s got you.

Carmen is about as key population as you can get:  A transgender person who has been taking drugs from the age of 14 and who has been involved in sex work from the age of 18. If all the talk in the HIV world about serving key populations were being implemented, Carmen would have all the support she needs. However, this is not the reality.

Brixton Cemetery next to Vrededorp where we initially met Clinton is a hive of constant activity. While some rest, injecting drug users mill about to find spaces to take their hits. Sex workers look for spaces where they can provide services to their clients. In the evenings the cemetery comes alive with hundreds of destitute night dwellers.

Carmen has been a sex worker for 14 years now.  She has gone from working in surreptitious establishments to picking up clients on the side of the road. Within her first year and a half of doing sex work Carmen calculates that she has provided sexual services to over 100 men. Most of these men are married and straight, she explains, all of them trying to live out their fantasies, in such a way that they never intersect with their daily realities.

Carmen has been dating her partner, Justin, for three years now. Justin has a job as a carpenter, he has dark brown hair, that match his eyes, and he too is addicted to heroin.

Pic by Joyrene Kramer

The two had to figure out how they were going to maintain their relationship, while Carmen continued with her sex work. “It was really hard in the beginning, but I guess I have got used to it by now and it doesn’t bother me as much,” says Justin. Out of respect for her partner, Carmen says she no longer “picks up” men on the side of the road and doesn’t wear feminine clothing as often, despite the fact that she can make a lot more money when she is dressed up.

On evenings where Carmen goes to meet clients, Justin waits patiently at home. “I wait for her and I pray that nothing bad happens to her out there, because you never know what could happen”, says Justin.

When Carmen is working her biggest priority is being safe. She never shares needles, not even with Justin and she never takes a client who refuses to use a condom. All of this however, Carmen had to learn on her own. She had to learn for herself that she did not have to have unprotected sex with anyone. It was her own knowledge of HIV that led to her making the firm decision to not share needles with other users. In Carmen’s case it was not even that services failed her, they simply don’t exist.

This article is part of a Spotlight special series on people who form part of so-called key populations.

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