MARCH 2007 • Issue 3
When we discuss gender and HIV/AIDS, it’s usually in the context of the pandemic’s impact on women who are born in female bodies, grow up identified as female, and are expected to perform roles in their society as determined by this gender. And the issues of power associated with gender are clear and pressing in the growing epidemic among women worldwide.
However, our efforts against AIDS require that we look at gender as more than just a way we talk about how sexism and violence against women fuel the pandemic. One understanding of gender is not as two fixed poles (male and female), but as a spectrum that includes many different experiences and expressions of gender identity. Gender, and ideas about gender, shape the way the world treats people who don’t fit into the most rigid definitions of female and male. Transgender people—those who live as a different gender from the one assigned to them at birth, embrace aspects of both genders, or identify themselves as being of a third gender—face extremely high rates of HIV and physical violence.
People who are born male and identify as such may be marginalized or attacked as well if others perceive them as being “feminine.” It has been argued that homophobia may have its roots in sexism. Author Suzanne Pharr, who works with domestic violence survivors, writes that some straight men may seek to harm gay men for being “traitors” to the power structure that gives men privileges over women. This treason shows the world that it’s not inevitable that men will always have power over women. Because many men have targeted women for abuse, they fear the possibility that they could be treated that way themselves, so any break in male ranks threatens them.
As Shivananda Khan and others write in their essay “Eyes Wide Shut,” the constant threat of violence against men who are seen as feminine also increases their risk for HIV. So the links between HIV, gender-based violence, and the rules of gender that everyone is expected to follow affect not just women and transgender people, but men who are seen by others as feminine.
In this issue of the Solidarity Project, we discuss gender in terms of HIV risk and the importance of allowing people to say for themselves who they are in order to help fight gender-based violence and HIV.