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We all deserve to be treated with respect. And Pride gives people a platform


By Rebecca Tallon de Havilland

I started my transition in the 1980s. I was in my 20s. Almost straight away I went from a glamorous career as a hair and makeup artist in Ireland – working with models, and singers like Ireland’s Eurovision winner Johnny Logan – to nothing. My story, as the first person to transition in Ireland, was spread all over the newspapers, and I lost that career overnight.

Ireland was very Catholic and conservative at that time – it was still illegal to be gay.

I took an HIV test before my surgery which was compulsory (although with hindsight, probably only for LGBT+ people). And it didn’t bother me – I came from a very middle class family, and at the time I thought that I didn’t fit the criteria, that I couldn’t get “something like that”.

When I got the result a month later, telling me that I had tested positive, my world stopped. And in a sense, I never got that world back again. I was a young person, and about to go on this wonderful journey of completing myself as a woman. And then I was given what at the time felt like a death sentence.

But I’m going to be 66 very soon, and as a trans woman who has been living with HIV for a long time, I feel like it’s a privilege to get older. A privilege that many of my friends didn’t have.

I had many difficult years, but my life took a turn for the better after reaching rock bottom in the early 00s, having ended up in the Chelsea and Westminster hospital. Now I have been sober for 20 years, and I actually work in that same hospital!

I have been reunited with my daughter, and I’m now a (glamorous) grandmother as well. I’ve achieved things that are beyond my wildest dreams – I never thought, as a trans person, I would be taken seriously in life.

So that’s why I want to speak up for trans women who are living with HIV. There is still a lack of understanding, and stigma.

I work with HIV Ireland, training trans women in the community there to do HIV testing. I strongly believe that trans people living with HIV need to be more visible, in our activism, in our communities, on the stage and up front – and that includes being involved in conferences and events.

And that was how I got involved with National AIDS Trust. I met the Chief Executive, Deborah Gold, at a conference that we were co-chairing. After that she was very keen for me to become more involved with their work. So now – as a member of the community advisory group – I’m part of the team. That means so much to me, to be the trans presence at the table. It’s so empowering to be able to make sure trans voices are being heard.

For decades, I didn’t like Pride. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. But two years ago I joined the Dublin parade, and that changed everything for me. Some people say it’s a protest, but for me the most important thing is awareness. Ultimately we are all human beings. We all deserve to be treated with respect. And Pride gives people a platform.

A few months ago, I was having dinner with a friend, who transitioned a year before me. She said the most profound thing that really struck me. Talking about our identity as trans women, we agreed that it was never a choice. “We have to be willing to give up everything. For us just to be ourselves.” I’d never been able to put that into words before, but I think it summed up this long journey that I have been on.

May 31, 2024 By santi.agra