Champions of Change: A Celebration of Black Women Changemakers in HIV
Tori Cooper, The Trailblazer
A conversation with Tori Cooper, Director of Community Engagement at the Human Rights Campaign and member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS
Bold, fearless, pioneering—all words used to describe HIV activist and advocate Tori Cooper. But ask her, and she’d add “capable” to that list. The first Black trans person appointed to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS in 2021, she has a legacy of making a way out of no way, for herself and countless others in the Black, trans, and HIV communities. “I never saw anything as impossible. If there was ever a challenge, I always felt I could do it. I just always thought of myself as capable.”
“I never saw anything as impossible. If there was ever a challenge, I always felt I could do it. I just always thought of myself as capable.”
An only child assigned male at birth, “I didn’t see people who I thought were similar to how I saw myself.” That is, until her teens, when she discovered the pulsating music and ‘All are welcome here’ atmosphere of queer nightclubs. It’s there that Cooper expanded her innate sense of self and understanding of her womanhood. But in that same love-filled environment, she’d soon bear witness to unspeakable tragedy. “AIDS decimated Black gay clubs,” she says of witnessing the devastation in the ‘80s. “There’s no other way to describe it. We’d be partying together, and a couple weeks later there’d be a funeral announcement. My very best friend died when I was 23.” Early on, when she took her first HIV test, Cooper received a sobering false-positive result. “I didn’t tell anybody,” she recalls, initially thinking she’d contracted the disease before a re-test proved otherwise. “I remember the shock and how alone I felt, especially at such a young age.”
It’s a feeling she’s never wanted anyone else to have, and why she’s dedicated her life to helping end HIV—especially in the community she loves. In the ‘90s, Cooper began a career in HIV advocacy, creating fliers and condom packets with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis* in New York. Later, she teamed with Zakia Jemaceye to help establish a program called Sistas Too, an adaptation of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) program to aid in HIV risk reduction in the trans community. Established in 1993, it was the first of its kind, a woman-to-woman intervention with a proven track record for arming patients with the knowledge and tools they needed to help protect themselves.
In the three decades since, Cooper, who’s also a cancer survivor, has done it all. From grassroots organizing to high-ranking posts—like her current role as Director of Community Engagement at the Human Rights Campaign and on President Biden’s HIV/AIDS advisory council—she’s proud to pass on the lessons she’s gleaned from years of service. “My presence as a Black trans woman has not only opened doors for others like me, but provided a visual that may encourage someone to know that they are valued and can do anything,” says Cooper. “If you want to live healthily, be in love, be happy, you can. I consider myself fortunate to be a part of a group of advocates doing amazing work to create change; not just around what people living with HIV think, but what the rest of the world thinks.”
*This organization is a Gilead grant recipient.