AIDS at 30: Being HIV-positive and living a positive life

Shannon Sims

Shannon Sims knows all about the circumstances that cause many trans women to contract HIV, because she’s lived through it

RENEE BAKER | Contributing Writer
editor@dallasvoice.com

Life as a prostitute, a drug dealer, a homeless woman, a transgender woman, an HIV-positive woman, a Texas prisoner and guard, a showgirl and a college student brings her a mix of experiences few could match.

But at 31 years of age, despite her difficult road so far, Sims has hope. She says she has never given up on God and that her bad karma is behind her now.

“I am going to have a childhood someday,” she says, “and have a birthday party.”

Sims grew up in the South Dallas area as one of four children who all had different fathers. Sims never had a chance to know her own father.

Making it harder was the fact that her mother, Dorothy Walker, was never able to accept the feminine side of her transgender daughter.

“I was on my own since 13, when my mom gave me the boot,” Sims says.

She says her mother reached a breaking point when Sims evolved past playing with Barbie dolls and began expressing herself in a more feminine and vocal manner. That was the beginning of Sims’ life as a transient.

“I used to sleep on the streets for weeks at a time,” she says, “mostly in the South Dallas and Fair Park area.”

Sims lived under bridges and was “in and out” of trash cans, finding food to eat wherever she could.

She says many have no idea what it was like living and sleeping with “roaches and insects crawling all over me.” She says her circumstances left her little choice but to turn to prostitution to survive, a choice that she wishes she had never been forced to make. She said she “came to Oak Lawn to prostitute [herself] for years and years.”

Even today, though it is largely past her, Sims says she has had to “turn a trick or two” to make ends meet, since other jobs can be very hard to come by. To those who might judge her for her decision, Sims says they need to understand that when you are an obviously transgender woman, “you can’t just walk into a place and hand them a resume.”

Indeed, the National Center for Transgender Equality reported in 2011 that 16 percent of a national transgender population feels “compelled to work in the underground economy for income (such as doing sex work or selling drugs).”

When Sims was 17 years old, she got a lucky break. By night, she had been living in a ticket booth at Fair Park in Dallas, sneaking through the air conditioning ducts to get in. To lull herself to sleep, she would read through the telephone book.

“By the grace of God, I came across the number for the Job Corps,” she says.

The next day, Sims called the Job Corp number, and she kept calling until she was given a chance to join the North Texas Job Corps program. That gave her a new start in life, allowing her to get her GED, a driver’s license, clean clothes, career planning and job placement as a security guard.

But at 18, Sims just hadn’t reached a level of maturity to handle the responsibility of her new life. Then she started selling drugs,and it all came crashing down around her.

“I got pulled over for about a kilo — 960 grams of crack cocaine,” she says. “That was my first time in trouble with the police.”

That first time cost her five years of prison time — three years from 2000 to 2003, and another two years from 2005 to 2007. The official charges were drug possession, drug manufacturing and drug distribution.

It was not quite four years ago, Sims says, that she came out of prison “with a new attitude.” She said she had to make a change and “either continue to do the stuff I was doing, or begin to experience the positive side of life.”

While her new positive attitude was a good thing, though, her newly HIV-positive status left her with another obstacle to overcome.

Sims explains that she engaged in some risky behaviors while she was in prison, and she believes that is how she contracted HIV.

“In prison, I was the queen of the block and the most feminine thing there,” she says.

Sims’ life on the streets gave her the smarts to keep her safe in prison, but she was unable to protect herself from the AIDS virus. While she was between stays in prison, Sims received support, as well as her diagnosis as HIV-positive, from the Renaissance III AIDS service organization in South Dallas, which closed its doors in 2005.

As an HIV-positive transgender woman, Sims is not alone. The HIV infection rate among transgender individuals is approximately four times the national average. According to the 2011 NCTE national survey, the HIV infection rate is 0.6 percent for the general population and 2.6 percent for the national transgender sample of 6,450 individuals.

The HIV infection rate increases to 15.3 percent for transgender individuals that engage in sex work. People of color in the transgender sample reported higher rates of infection: 24.9 percent for African-Americans, 10.9 percent for Latinos/Latinas, 7 percent for American Indians, and 3.7 percent for Asian-Americans.

Sims is not surprised that the infection rates are higher for the transgender population. She says it’s a result of the things many trans women have to do to survive.

She says she knows too many transgender women that are in the same situation she’s in, “just trying to survive and make it.”

Sims’ lack of choices landed her in the Dallas jail for prostitution. After getting out of prison, Sims didn’t know what to do and went “out on my own to Cedar Springs. … An officer propositioned me, and they [ended up putting] a leg monitor on me.”

At one point, when Sims was just out of jail, “this dude on a bus” gave her a phone number for Project Reconnect, a program operating through the city of Dallas that helps prisoners gain re-entry into society.

“Without them, I don’t know where I would be,” she says of the program, adding that this program was what finally helped her turn her life around and helped her transition to a normal daily life. She also credits health and food pantry programs at the Resource Center of Dallas as “making a way, when there was no other way.”

Sims says she has seen at least 10 of her friends die of HIV and she wants to make sure she takes care of herself.

Sims works with Oak Lawn restaurants now, and is pursuing an associate’s degree in business at El Centro College. She hopes to pursue a bachelor’s degree in accounting next.

After completing her education, Sims says she would like to channel her energies into creating a resource group that specifically advocates for and supports transgender health and vocational education.

At night, Sims is also known as Laylonni Duvall on the drag circuit. And for now, Sims is thrilled to be able to afford her own place with “a flat-screen TV, a few pretty things and a sleigh bed.” And, she says, she loves being a non-operative transgender woman and doesn’t want to have gender reassignment surgery.

But then she looks up for a minute and says, “Well, maybe one day.”

—  John Wright