A strip club on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans.Gerald Herbert/AP
Tela Love, a 36-year-old transgender woman who used to work the streets of New Orleans’ French Quarter as a prostitute, has been HIV-positive for nearly 10 years. When she started exchanging sex for money and occasionally drugs, she said, local police arrested her after finding condoms in her bag. She was subsequently incarcerated at Orleans Parish Prison, where another inmate forced her to have unprotected sex with him. She later heard he was HIV-positive, she told Al Jazeera.
Love’s experiences with police harassment and sexual violence in prison partly explain why Louisiana’s death rate from AIDS is nearly double the national average and the New Orleans metropolitan area has the second-highest rate of new HIV infections in the United States, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Megan McLemore, a senior health research director at HRW, told Al Jazeera that Louisiana is not doing enough to curb the spread of the disease. “It is actually undermining the effort to control HIV by its own law and policies,” she said. In a report published Wednesday, she says officials prohibit access to sterile syringes and criminalize sex work, which “contribute to an uncontrolled HIV epidemic and an extremely high AIDS death rate.”
Around one-third of surveyed participants — who all admitted to exchanging sex for food, drugs or money — said police harassment and a subsequent fear of carrying condoms has resulted in unprotected sex. "(Police) are associating condoms with criminality and then using it as a threat of arrest,” McLemore said.
As a result, prostitutes hide condoms under their wigs or between their legs to try to prevent them from being seized, Love said. Another transgender woman told HRW, “I’ve seen other girls being harassed, and I learn to be cautious. I hide (condoms) under my wigs.”
But some individuals report having to resort to more drastic measures to stay out of trouble, such as performing sexual favors in exchange for avoiding jail. Love said she was forced to have sex “with no condom” with an officer.
Another sex worker in the French Quarter told HRW that a police officer took advantage of her vulnerable position: "He went through my purse and found the condoms, then he started asking me how much I charge for a blow job. He said if I wanted to go free I had to give him a blow job, because the condoms were reason enough to bring me in. So I did it and he let me go.”
Incarceration is another major influence on Louisiana’s high HIV rate, the HRW report found. Even though Orleans Parish Prison provides testing for every inmate staying for more than one week, it is under federal oversight for failing to protect its inmates against sexual assaults and other forms of harm, the report said.
“People use bread bags or rubber gloves (for protection), but it’s rare that people actually even use them,” Love said. “It’s very dangerous. It makes you bleed worse. The likelihood of that being a good barrier is none.”
Love said a social stigma on taking medication against HIV also increases the risk of infection while in prison.
"The staff are very unprofessional," she said. "They broadcast your business.” When prisoners are queuing at the doctor’s office for pills, she said, the staff tells everyone, “They got HIV. Better watch that punk.”
And once an inmate is released, the fear of police harassment for carrying condoms exacerbates the problem.
Someone can enter jail HIV-free, Love said, but “when she comes out of jail she probably won’t be. There’s a very good chance. And then she’s intimidated and afraid to use condoms.”
"It’s a deadly vicious cycle."
Another factor fueling New Orleans’ HIV epidemic is the dearth of public syringe-exchange programs, which in New York have effectively lowered the number of new HIV infections from 12 percent to 4 percent, the report said. Syringes are classified as drug paraphernalia in New Orleans, McLemore explained; their receipt is illegal, but their distribution is not.
The only functioning clinic in the city opens for two hours on Friday afternoon and fails to adequately serve the needs of drug users, according to the HRW report. Elizabeth Jones, who once directed the Drop-In Center’s syringe exchange, told HRW: “As a medical facility, the law protects us but not our clients. They can still be charged with possession of a syringe.”
Poverty further complicates the problem in New Orleans. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, nearly one in four residents lives in poverty. But for Love, who was forcibly displaced after the storm, the move offered a way out of a life mired in drugs and prostitution. At her temporary home in Atlanta, she came in contact with other transgender women who served as role models and ultimately inspired her to found New Legacy Ministries, a nonprofit organization that aims to provide support for transgender individuals, she said.
It’s time to take the initiative to "SAVE OUR SELVES!" she wrote on her website.
The New Orleans Public Health Department wasn’t available for comment at the time of publication.