September 27th marks the observance of National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. The special focus of the day is to bring more awareness to the burgeoning problem of HIV/AIDS in the gay community and to encourage individuals to seek testing, treatment and care. In many farmworker communities this is a day that passes much as any other, with a focus on the work at hand, and the many obligations that accompany long hours spent in the field. HIV and AIDS aren’t subjects that are easily or frequently discussed in the open.
There is no data regarding the number of LGBT individuals in the farmworker community. However, outreach workers, clinicians, and researchers who provide health care and public health interventions to farmworkers know from experience that LGBT people exist within the community, and that many face enormous challenges in accessing care, finding support, and feeling safe. LGBT “invisibility” within the farmworker community stems from strong cultural and religious taboos regarding sex in general, and sexual and gender minority identities specifically. It is common for LGBT persons to hide their identity in order to protect themselves from shaming, assault, and isolation from their families and communities.
The stress caused by hiding one’s identity and dealing with stigma has been associated with higher rates of depression, suicide attempts, drug and alcohol abuse, and unsafe sexual behavior in LGBT people. LGBT farmworkers who are “out” to their employers risk job termination or demotion, and harassment from co-workers. A 2009 story by the California Report, a public radio show, illustrated the challenges faced by openly LGBT farmworkers. A transwoman farmworker related her experience in the fields while transitioning from male to female. Her boss started verbally harassing her; later her boyfriend, who also worked at the asparagus packing house where she worked, was attacked by other supervisors. Finally, she was demoted from supervisor to the assembly line. Unfortunately, this story is not unusual for openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender farmworkers working in the fields.
These challenges create additional barriers for LGBT farmworkers seeking preventive measures, testing, or ultimately HIV/AIDS treatment and care. National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day presents an important opportunity for outreach workers to step into their communities and offer this critical information on prevention, testing and treatment to all farmworkers.
Recently Farmworker Justice issued a brief detailing the challenges faced by LGBT farmworkers in their communities.