Society shows and tells women like me on a daily basis that we are disposable and unworthy of love. So I ask the question: what is love and how does it show up in the lives of those who are often forgotten?

As an African American HIV+ woman of Trans experience I was not taught the true essence of love because of who I am.  My sisters of trans experience are being murdered at the rate of one a week and, yet, it seems like no one is sounding the alarm.  Even in death, my sisters are denied respect. They are called by their given names, addressed with male pronouns, and, God forbid if they have had any interactions with the penal system, their mug shots are used by media outlets and what they may have done/been accused of is used to define them.

The United States is home to forty-two states that do not even have any type of trans civil rights laws, making it legal to murder a person of trans experience who is trying to live their authentic truth.

So the question remains what is love, for us?

I once lived in one of those states that do not provide protection for women like me; however, I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I was lucky to be blessed to have encountered one of my mentors and present day supporters, Avery Wyatt, there. Avery is a Black gay man who saved my life.  When I received my diagnosis in 2006, I was referred to DeKalb County Board of Health where he continues to open minds and save lives.

Avery took me under his wings and encouraged me to be better than my diagnosis.  He used to say to me, “If not you, then who, and If not now, then when?”

At the time I did not understand what that meant, but now I live by those words. Because of him, I also began to understand what love could be. He was the one that explained to me that in order for me to reach my full potential I would have to leave everything that brought me comfort and to walk into the unknown. At first, I was scared but I knew what he was saying was true.  I packed my belongings in 5 suitcases and purchased a one-way ticket to New York City to truly live my authentic truth unapologetically.

My first couple of months were the hardest, but I was destined to make it because I had given up everything I had to get to NYC. There was no turning back because I had nothing to go back to. I began to attend different groups that provided services for women like me. This is when I began to accept the concept of being loved.  Some spaces were more conducive than others because when a group of people who rarely receives love or has not always experienced what it is like to be loved then how can we truly love each other. During this time, I also discovered how Community Based Organizations survived by keeping us enables on the system.  Those moments showed me what systematic oppression looked liked and I was not pleased to say the least.

Once more, I had to challenge myself to become better.  I begin to network with other positive women of trans experience who taught me how to first become an advocate for myself and then to my community. During some of my advocacy work I had the honor and pleasure to be introduced to JoAnne Smith the Founder and Executive Director of Girls for Gender Equity.  She embraced my womanhood and did not invalidate who I was but instead has become a driving force on my journey to success.  She has done more for me than I think she will ever know.  She still provides me with potential career leads and offers assistance with my resumes and cover letters because she wants to see me reach my full potential.

So, I now know what love is.  It has been there to pick me up when at times my given family has let me down.  It has taught me how to love myself and I can now reciprocate that feeling.  I have experienced love through the lens of perfect strangers whom entered my life to make me better than what I it was before they entered.  It is Black love that is deeply rooted in the sense of community and I can tell myself proudly: I am loved and I have learned how to give love, as well.

Octavia Y. Lewis, MPA is an Education Specialist in Transgender Programs at the Hetrick-Martin Institute in New York City.