This is the first in a series chronicling 10 inspiring individuals living with HIV.
Advocating for the most marginalized people in society is no easy job, but Ashunte Coleman is up to the task. As the founder of the Florida organization LIPS Tampa, Coleman offers help to sex workers and Black transgender women, providing food, condoms, needle exchanges, health information, and a shoulder to lean on.
Working with the Sex Worker Outreach Project, Coleman hosts weekly workshops and empowerment groups. Coleman's job is complicated by current realities, including the existence of SESTA/FOSTA, the 2018 federal law that made it virtually impossible for sex workers to screen potential clients online, forcing many back to the streets to find work. On top of that, COVID-19 has made street work -- and the outreach by Coleman and activists like her -- far riskier.
Coleman pushes through the challenges, partly because the mission is so personal. Twenty years ago, Coleman was facing life as a Black transgender woman with a felony conviction; survival sex was the only work she could find. Later, before finding her groove in advocacy, Coleman worked in restaurants and was a certified nurse's assistant but was often forced to supplement her income with sex work. There are few people who empathize with or offer help to sex workers, Coleman realized, so they must rely on each other.
"I've always advocated for sex workers and [people with HIV], mainly because all of my friends were either one or the other or both," Coleman says. "Later, after my time in the Florida prison system, I began to take my role very serious and align myself with transgender males and females that were advocates and leaders in the LGBT community." These people, Coleman says, became her mentors.
Our community is lucky she is now passing on her own knowledge and fulfilling her passion for helping others. Amid all her work for sex workers and people living with HIV, Coleman is also a member of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a group working to restore voting rights to Floridians with felony convictions.
"There are many intersections I cross being the trans woman I am," Coleman says. "Our struggle is hard, and every day I try to lessen the load by doing the work I do."