Shattering Stigma, Breaking Down Barriers and Creating Change

Diana Oliva - June 30, 2020

As a first generation Mexican-American, I was raised in a single-parent household in a small, rural town just outside of Fresno, California. My mother brought up five children – two boys, two girls and me. Growing up in a small, rural town wasn’t easy for a shy, feminine, awkward little kid like me.

I was constantly made fun of by my family, classmates and those in my neighborhood. They would say, “Stop walking like a girl. Carry your books like a boy. Only girls play with dolls, not boys.” Because of the constant bullying and harassment, I grew up living with a lot of shame, stigma and discrimination.

I was diagnosed with HIV in 2000; I was just 28 years old.

I moved to Los Angeles, still struggling with my HIV diagnosis and my gender identity. It was there, after some very rough years, that I finally came to the realization that life was too short and that I should live in my truth and be happy.

I pursued a higher education. My experience dealing with law enforcement as a Transgender woman, as well as childhood memories of racism and discrimination my family experienced as migrant farm workers, led me to pursue my interests in social justice issues. I earned a bachelor’s degree in social work at California State University, Los Angeles.

During my last year of school, I decided to make the medical and legal transition from male to female. The week after my graduation, I informed my mother that I had transitioned and that I was going to live my life as Diana. My mother reacted with anger and disgust. “Te vas a ir al infierno,” she said to me. Or, in English, “You are going to hell.” I was devastated and heartbroken. Nonetheless, I had to move on with my life without my mother’s blessing and continued to focus on my higher education.

Growing up, school was always a refuge for someone like me who was confused about gender. I did well in school and felt a confidence in classrooms that I didn’t feel about my own body. During a trip to New York, I fell in love with the city, and thought it may be a good place to begin my gender transition. It felt far enough away that if there were any backlash, I wouldn’t bring embarrassment to my family. I continued my pursuit of a higher education there and earned my master’s degree in social work at Columbia University. I finally felt that I had overcome the shame, stigma, guilt and fear that had plagued me for so many years.

In 2015, I returned to Los Angeles to continue my work with the HIV and Transgender communities. I became the Director of Transgender Health Program at St. John’s Well Child and Family Center, and built one of the largest Transgender health programs in the country. In 2017, I was recruited to Gilead and became the first openly Transgender person to be hired by the company.

The life expectancy of a Transgender woman of color is 35 years, according to a study by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Last month, I celebrated my 48th birthday, a milestone that many Transgender women of color do not get to experience because of violence and hate. For more than 25 years, my career has been about advancing the development of public policy that addresses community-level health and social problems and turning my daunting personal challenges into the very basis of my activism.

My work has always been about giving voice and visibility not only to the HIV communities, but also to the multiple, overlapping communities my life has touched. Gilead has empowered me to dream again, to continue to fight, and to create the change I want to see in the world – a world free of HIV and violence against transgender people.

Diana Oliva is Senior Manager of Community Engagement at Gilead.

Editor’s Note: This is one of three profiles shared by Gilead employees in honor of Pride Month.