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Letter To An Unknown Troll

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Photo: Meg O'Donnell
I am a woman who happens to be transgender and who happens to be HIV positive. I have spent almost half of my life living with HIV, in fact thriving with HIV. When I was diagnosed, I made a decision to try, at all costs, to live and not to die. It didn't happen as smoothly as that on day one, two or three but my diagnosis did change the way I live. I was diagnosed at the end of my first year at university, way back in the days when HIV was seen as a definite precursor to AIDS, and death by AIDS was depicted in the media by images of crashing rocks chiselling away at a tombstone. It was a terrifying time. The doctors told me I would more than likely die – people did then – my university suggested I leave and all around me people moved their toothbrushes. I changed my diet, tried very, very hard to give up all illegal drugs and I started to jog. I fought the physical symptoms of the virus and somehow managed to sustain being well enough for long enough, until the new drugs came along to support me and the many others like me who were living with an apparent death sentence.

But in the years since, I have struggled fighting the stigma of being HIV and the conjoined stigmas of being HIV and transgender. From dentists to doctors, from employers to insurance companies, I have been turned away, treated poorly, wrongly labelled, correctly labelled but insensitively, and made to feel like I am not good enough to be treated like everyone else. I have carried the stigma that I am not like everyone else – that somehow, the things that describe me add up to me being not worthy of tender description. Despite cherishing my life and my health, it seemed the world was stuck on my carrying a virus that they saw as terrifyingly cut-free from morality. A thing of toxicity. I have battled that for most of my life and it has drained me, but it has also made me utterly aware of what life at the edges really means.

By hook or by crook, I worked my way through and around the people who wanted to label, shun and avoid intimacy with me. When people have called me names – try dating as an HIV positive trans woman – I have stood tall(ish) and tried not to let the words burrow under my skin and shape my 'glass half full' dating intentions. When people said to me, 'Keep quiet about being either transgender, HIV, or transgender and HIV', I kept my head held high and my eyes forward and even as I felt tears forming, I mouthed the words, 'This is my truth'.

I was advised to keep my being HIV secret as it was then deemed an insurance risk, my blood considered as toxic as the asbestos in the ceiling.

I have learned to work through discrimination and the fear of others. When I was a teacher I was advised to keep my being HIV secret as it was then deemed an insurance risk, my blood considered as toxic as the asbestos in the ceiling. 'Keep still', they would say, 'Don't let 'you' seep out'. I learnt to hide the side-effects of my drugs in the toilets before work. My hospital appointments became days off sick and my losing or gaining weight became 'happy/not happy' rather than as a consequence of 'effective/not effective' drug treatments.

When I told my employers that I wanted to teach and transition at work they told me it was possibly best for me to leave, by the back door, and take some time out. To hide.

When I first told my GP that I was transgender and would like to move forward with surgical options they laughed, literally laughed, and said, 'In tough times no one is going to pay for an HIV positive person to have elective surgery'. It was deemed a choice and people like me weren't given choices, just the barest sliver of space in which to exist. For ten years, I fought for the right to have surgery; I had conversations with GPs, with private clinics here, in the U.S. and Bangkok. All of whom, for 10 years, said no. That their insurance wouldn't cover surgery on an HIV positive patient.

I once sent off 15 emails to cosmetic surgeons to enquire about breast implants. Everyone turned me down. At the end of that day I looked in the mirror and saw a sadness that I hadn't seen before. Some of their words of rejection had slipped under my skin; where there should have been silicone implants, there lay stigma.

But I stood tall, head held high, breathed deeply and said, 'Move on Juno, move on'.

One day, I walked into another doctors surgery, said I was transgender and that I wanted surgery. I was armed now with the law and my rights and I was defensive – understandably so. But I was met with a change: they said yes, the doors are open, you can come in.

I write about my truth now. I try and write honestly and openly, even if it feels uncomfortable or painful or like the wound is still open. I write because I think it may help someone who is trapped by the stigmatising views of others. But I never imagined, after my long struggles, that I would have to defend myself and my words for days after publication from people who readily accept their title of 'troll' and their online role as 'trolling'.

A 'troll', as we know, is a mythical Scandinavian being who is depicted as a hunched creature or a giant living under a bridge, often waiting to jump out onto unsuspecting passersby. A troll uses its size and stealth to attack, scare and often eat people. There is something quite childlike and childish in the troll myth. It is brutal, simplistic and often fatal. As myths go, it lacks meaningful narrative. Trolls are often a device used to terrify the edges of a tale.

I wonder if the people who class themselves as 'trolls' or their behaviour as 'trolling' see themselves as childish, brutish and capable of delivering fatal blows; like an unwieldy, wooden, oversized club? When people have said no to me in the past it has often been couched in simplistic terms of power and powerless. I was seen as powerless, while they had the power. They laughed.
When the trolls attack me online for being trans, for wanting to be a mother, for talking about my vagina, for having had a drug history and for having HIV, I often wonder what it is they are trying to do?

Are they trying to club the words right out of me?

Are they trying to take away the space I have worked long and hard to own?

Are they trying to say that my truth can only be a lie and that they agree with the old power balance that wanted me to remain outside of the world, at its fringes?

Are they just trying to do as the mythical troll does and make me scared of spaces that lie beneath me or to the side of me, spaces I want to explore but not own or control?

Or are they just trying to delete anything or anyone that doesn't fit into their view of the world?

I never claimed to be the same woman as you, dear Troll, I actively explore our differences. But I don't understand why other women are using aggression, so often steeped in patriarchy, to bludgeon me out of this creative space. You have called me mad, mental, mentally deranged, a man, a fucked-up man/woman/thing. A person who shouldn't teach, who isn't fit to be near children, who is deluded and whose delusions are a danger to all of society: men, women, children, femininity, masculinity, feminism.

As a child I was raised in a fairly tough environment. Education was my escape, words were my freedom, and the 1970s feminism that beamed out from a small, round, white television set was my first point of truth in a world in which I felt so alone. My sense of self was buoyed by the women on screen at whom my dad, in all of his fragile masculinity, seemed so aghast. To think that now, my very being is seen in opposition to this history, makes me very sad.

You, Troll, hurt me but you don't destroy me.

@justjuno1
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