Interviews by Daniel Jack Lyons

In the wake of a formative year for transgender communities, where there has been much celebration for those who have chosen to transition publicly, there seems to be little discussion about people like Becca Blackwell, a trans actor who post-transition does not conform to the gender binary that our society is comfortable with. Blackwell sat down with me to talk about how the circus saved her life, the nuances of constructing masculinity, and her upcoming solo show based on a Corey Haim PR stunt that confronts the discomfort that comes with using they as a gender pronoun.

 

It’s amazing to see how much trans visibility has recently escalated...
 

In six months time!

 

Yeah exactly, it’s been happening so fast. Do you think that the recent advances in trans visibility could have a limiting effect on what is produced creatively in these communities? 
Yeah definitely, I think anytime you have something really unique and sacred, and then you blow it up, something gets lost in that exposure. Kind of like what Madonna did to voguing. The way she used it didn’t exactly empower anyone from the ballroom community that she took it from. And suddenly kids across America are voguing without any clue that this came from a queer community in New York that was creating a safe space for people coming from very unsafe and unaccepting environments. I just think that when that kind of exposure or political advancement happens so quickly, certain histories may be lost or forgotten. 


Since you are often cast into male roles, how does that work as for auditions? Do you have to choose a gender when you audition? 


I don’t even participate in that environment. I use to go to auditions with long hair, and they just did not know what to do with me. And I would be told that I was too unique and that I couldn’t blend in. And you know a lot of those kind of roles are all about blending. I actually talk about this in my solo show, after working in bars I picked up this really cute little pastime of getting wasted and doing tons of cocaine.

 

That’s so cute!


I know, right! So I put my acting career on hold and started working with Circus Amok, which is this queer socio-political circus (no animals), its free and travels all over the parks of NYC. They haven’t done it in a while, but that circus saved my life. I quit bartending, cut my hair and joined this circus. It was full of incredibly talented weirdos; they were my people. And it was really like a family, we fought, and it was really hard at times, but it was instrumental to saving me spiritually, artistically and emotionally. And it was through that community that I became part of some amazing shows and worked with all these incredible people in the down town world. And from there it was always word of mouth, and I no longer needed to audition because everything came from within our own community. At one point I realized that I was one of the three only trans actors working consistently. And now there are a lot of young trans people coming up which is so awesome to see. But for me, coming up as a trans actor, it was just a glass ceiling that I wasn’t always sure how to handle, and my show — They Themselves and Schmerm — has a lot to do with this travail.

 

You mentioned that this comes up in your upcoming solo show, They Themselves and Schmerm, what is the show about?


Well, it’s based on this weird PR thing that Corey Haim’s handlers did in 1988 called Me, Myself and I. And it was his way of being like, Hey, I don’t have this drug problem, look at me play baseball, and I can play hockey, I love fashion, look at me play the keyboard! And it was very fascinating because I just saw someone who was so hurt, who had been abused and had a massive drug problem — things that I can relate to and identify with. So I used this as my container to make my own thing called They Themselves and Schmerm, within the context of my own industry problems.

I was also working on this web series called the Impossibilities, and they were casting a trans person — you know, like before six months ago — and my friend did this thing called Out Takes, so where I am now, I’m very lucky because I just imagine all the people before me that had to come up when this discourse didn’t exist. I think Lea DeLaria is one of the first truly butch-bodied people that I’ve seen on TV, ever! Except for the weird over exaggerated massage lady named Helga! You know? Hey weren’t actually butch, they were just big scary German women.

 

Yeah, your right. I hadn’t considered that, but then again as queer people, I guess were always looking at any character or story and putting ourselves in there in whatever way we can relate to it. 



Yes, absolutely! At least I can say for you and I, we came of age in a time where we saw nothing but heterosexual story lines that we had to find a way to correlate to or connect to it in some way. Which is what all my friends of color have had to do their whole lives. At least I didn’t have to imagine being another skin color. But I guess that can go on and on, like if you’re not able bodied, etc.

Things are clearly starting to change, though. Look at HBO and Netflix, by not being beholden to corporate sponsors like they are in cable, people are finally able to push it further and make some really interesting stuff. What’s fascinating about that is people my age are now in positions of power, which changes the dynamic. It’s not like they’re all 60-year-old white men that are like, what? A Dyke! And she’s not hot by my standards!? Which is why people like that have always had a problem with people like me, because if I am perceived as a man, then what is the value of a man? If a man with a vagina can be just as strong and masculine as one with a penis, then just watch the patriarchy crumble. That’s something thats really hard for people raised with those ideals to come to terms with.

 

Would you say masculinity is the biggest threat to most men? 


Yes, most men, when they meet a lesbian, want to dominate them. And look, you can’t dominate me. I bench press over 200, I’m confidant, which really freaks them out, and I’m articulate. I have everything a man has, just not the talking stick — well actually I do, but they’re all lined up in my closet.

 

But the shackles of masculinity certainly go both ways. I mean, I’ve known plenty of gay men who also struggle with their own internal hang-ups around masculinity. Has anything like that ever come up for you? 


Absolutely, you know, I’m on testosterone, and I haven’t had top surgery because I haven’t found 10 grand that I can throw down, but then I also ask myself; do I want to be a man? Currently I do all the things that a man does, yet I don’t always feel comfortable using the term he, because I’m concerned that it will erase the entire struggle that she brought with me. And there was a long time where I would present as I am in a masculine way, but request that people use she with me. It’s like, yeah I look like a dude, but you’re going to call me she, because I want you to rethink feminine bodies. Like, I am Martha and I am George. Deal with that.

 

How does that affect you as an actor? Or does it? 


It doesn’t affect me, because I do what I want. But I certainly see other femme actresses that just want to shave their heads be really butch because that’s how they feel on the inside, but they have to play this game for the sake of their careers, for the sake of the industry. As soon as a woman cuts here hair, she looses her position, not even power, just her position. It’s like, Aw, you had such pretty hair — and well, I thought I had a pretty face too, and this like really cool mind?

With more than 8 years since the first man has been cured of AIDS, many are wondering; what’s next? Dr. Kambiz Shekdar is the appropriate individual to answer that question. Shekdar invented a technology that, when combined with lessons learned from the Berlin Patient, is capable of setting us on a direct course for a cure. The first step has been to mobilize a powerful network of scientists, clinicians and technology experts that are dedicated to developing an AIDS cure that is accessible and affordable to everyone from Park Avenue to the Sudan. Dr. Kambiz and I discussed the process of this discovery, and the next steps in forming a movement toward the cure. Amidst a generation that seems to be accepting the state of AIDS, it’s refreshing to hear from someone who finds that unacceptable.

Being within such close reach of finding a cure for AIDS is quite a cultural milestone and a very exciting one at that. However there is still a lot to understand. Perhaps we could start by talking about the Berlin patient. What exactly made that possible?

The key thing that happened in the Berlin Patient’s case was a brilliant physician connected some dots and figured out how to cure AIDS. The dots that he connected were under everyone’s nose for decades, but no one had connected them before. One of the dots was the knowledge that some people are naturally resistant to HIV, they simply lack on the surface of their cells a cellular receptor that the virus needs to latch onto to gain entry into the cell. The Berlin Patient had AIDS and Leukemia at the same time. In order to treat the Leukemia, the Berlin Patient needed a bone marrow transplant. To do this, his doctor had to wipe out the patient’s cancerous immune system with radiation and then give the patient bone marrow from a healthy donor. There are stem cells in bone marrow, and these stem cells, once they are in the patient, give rise to a new, healthy immune system. In the Berlin Patient’s case, because he had AIDS in addition to leukemia, his doctor had the idea to find a person who is naturally resistant to HIV as the bone marrow donor. By transplanting stem cells from an HIV resistant donor, he figured, maybe this might hopefully give rise to an immune system that resistant to HIV. And it worked. Thousands of HIV- positive patients with Leukemia had received bone marrow transplants in the past, but no one had thought to use the bone marrow of an HIV resistant donor before. 

Something that now may seems so obvious.

Right, but actually this required very original thinking. I think a lot of times new and good ideas come out of left field, and in this case that’s exactly what happened.

Moving forward, can you explain your connection to the cure for AIDS?

Sure, so far, AIDS treatments have been about attacking the virus. We have ‘antiretroviral drugs.’ We are working to develop cures based on the body’s natural resistance to HIV. Imagine if someone cured colon cancer for the first time. That would show that you can cure colon cancer, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the very first way colon cancer was cured would be the same way you would go about curing it in other patients. You would look to create better and more efficient methods. This is the same with the case of the Berlin Patient and how AIDS was cured the first time around. The treatment that the Berlin Patient received proves clinically that you can cure AIDS, that certain types of stem cells are curative. Now, it’s about taking cure and creating a method of cell therapy that is broadly applicable to every patient. And that’s where I come in. In the Berlin Patient’s case, the curative stem cells were obtained from an HIV-resistant individual. What needs to happen now is we need to create cells that are curative, exactly like those received by the Berlin Patient, from each patients’ own stem cells. Everyone has stem cells in their own body. We would isolate some of these stem cells and conduct ‘cellular surgery’ on the cells, to make them HIV resistant. Then, those newly resistant cells would be taken and implanted back into the patient. There are several ways to conduct the genetic cell surgery, and a few years ago as a graduate student at the Rockefeller University, I invented a technology that is one of the methods that holds a lot of promise to get this done.

But clearly when you invented this technology it wasn’t for the purpose of curing AIDS, so if I understand correctly, you are applying a technology that you invented for other purposes toward what was achieved by the clinician that cured the Berlin Patient? 

Right, that is exactly it. The method that I invented automates genetic engineering. Depending on what gene or what cell you are working with, you can use it to create cells for different uses and applications. It’s like we created a Swiss army knife for creating cells that mimic natural biology. At the time that I invented this method, I was a grad student and I needed to create cells that expressed certain genes. This required a lot of work and it was a very time consuming and manual process. So I figured out how to speed this process up. It was just an idea, at first. The university patented the idea, which turned out to work quite well, and we refined it and brought it to work. Turning back to the Berlin Patient, his case has shows us which kinds of cells can cure AIDS. Now, it’s about crafting cells like this for each person. The method that I had invented is about cell crafting; now that we know what kind of cells to craft, we are looking to apply our technique to craft those very cells.

The way you explain that makes perfect sense, but it’s still just so incredible to think that we are at a point in biomedical research where that is actually possible.

Yeah, and the cool thing is that this is not an open-ended research project. Research is usually very risky, and you never know how an idea will pan out. The case of the Berlin Patient kind of does an end run. No one crafted his cells, they already existed, and they were shown to cure AIDS. His case provides clinical proof what kinds of cells can cure AIDS. Now, it is about arriving at these kinds of cells, for every patient. It will take more than one technology or team. It’s really about getting everyone getting our act together, and coming together to create cells like that for each patient.

Well speaking of getting our act together, what are the next steps in moving forward this movement toward a cure?

Its interesting, while many have heard of the Berlin Patient, people haven’t quite grasped the fact that a cure for AIDS is actually tangible. Even a global rollout for a cure is thinkable, this is not science fiction. We have technology, but we can’t do this alone. People need to know that AIDS was cured, and that there are groups working on developing a cookie-cutter cure.

Right, we could actually see an end to this pandemic.

We absolutely could see a global end to AIDS in our lifetime. What many people don’t realize is that the Berlin Patient was cured eight years a go. There are hundreds of labs out there working on different bits of technology, but at this pace we will never cure AIDS. These labs are working separately. You have top experts in different pockets all over the US and Europe who are not working together. What we are doing, because we happen to have access to this very key piece of technology, we are using our position to bring together the top players to get this work done. We are reaching out to the top scientists and technicians at places like Columbia University Medical Center, NY Presbyterian, Rockefeller University, Stellenbosch University in Cape Town, South Africa, and others, with the intention to bring together these leaders in the field to build a Manhattan-based project to cure AIDS. Apart from the science, we are building a team, which is primarily a science and medical team, but our project goes even beyond that. We are inviting to the table people from all the key affected groups such as IV drug users, gay men, sex workers, people from resource-poor settings where it is even difficult to deliver pills. If we are going to think about a worldwide cure, we need to think carefully about how to deliver that cure everywhere to rich and poor. In the 30-35 years of HIV, people have become use to the idea that being HIV positive is something that you need to live with and accept, and in fact many people don’t think about themselves as infected, they think of themselves as poz. And when you start talking about a cure, it reminds us that this is actually a disease. Now that we have a chance to cure it, we really need to bring these communities on board to defeat it.

Absolutely. That is a crucial component since historically there has been an enormous disconnection between biomedical research, and community based services. 

Exactly, to the point that you might ask yourself, ‘why another AIDS organization when there are hundreds out there?’ Exactly because it has already been 8 years since the Berlin Patient has been cured. The world has accepted the state of the AIDS epidemic, and that is not acceptable. Much more can and must be done. We are pulling together a mobilized group of scientists and clinicians focused on developing the cure, and we can do this because we have immediate access to key technologies. We are unencumbered. We really have a fresh opportunity to generate a new and effective movement toward a cure.

When Timothy Ray Brown underwent a bone marrow transplant in Berlin during the winter of 2007, he was unaware of the historical significance that the surgery would later have. He hoped that the grueling procedure would free him from Leukemia, and he knew there was an unlikely chance that he could also be rid of HIV. Eight years later, Brown remains free from Leukemia and is still the only person on the planet to be cured of HIV. I met with Brown, and together we discussed the significance that this experience has had on him personally, his newfound role as a leader, and his hopes for impacting the world around us.

Being the only person in the world to ever be cured of HIV/AIDS must be quite an experience. And it seems it has launched you into the role of a leader and an activist. I’m curious to know where the story begins and if you have always considered yourself an activist.

I was an activist in ACT-UP in 1989 and 90 before I left the United States. I wanted to study in Berlin, which is what lead me there. Then, I tested positive for HIV in 1995. I had a partner at the time, who I met in Berlin and eventually moved to Barcelona with, and he told me that he didn’t want to know his status. He preferred not to know if he was HIV positive or negative. Its important to remember that even in 1995, testing positive was still considered a death sentence. There wasn’t anything available for treatment except for AZT and a couple other antiretrovirals.

Were you recommended to take AZT at that time?

Yes, my doctor recommended it, but I really didn’t want to do it because of all the known side affects, and perhaps even more so for the unknown side affects. But since it was the only treatment available, I agreed to try a low dose. And luckily the next year protease inhibitors and then the drug cocktail combinations came out and I was able to switch my treatment to those.

I did well for the next 11 years, and took a number of different HIV cocktail treatment regimens. Around 2006 I returned to the US for a friend’s gay wedding, and I remember feeling extremely fatigued. When I got back to Berlin it continued to get worse. I told my boyfriend, who took me to a doctor who diagnosed me with anemia. They started doing these blood transfusions but they didn’t really help, so I was sent to an oncologist. The oncologist did a bone marrow autopsy and discovered that I had Leukemia. Needless to say, I was shocked. I knew it was deadly and needed to get treated immediately so we discussed where I should go, and that’s when I was introduced to doctor Gero Huetter who, little did I know at that point, would became an integral part of my life and cure.

I read about your story a few years ago, but I was recently surprised to find out that you were cured of HIV as far as 8 years back. What has happened since then?

At first I was just basically recovering. And my former partner at the time, who I love dearly, strongly suggested that I take as much time as I needed to recover before even thinking of going public. But at some point I really began to feel the weight of being the only person in the world to be cured of HIV. I felt like I was in this very exclusive club, and I desperately wanted other people to join the club! I decided that I had to release my name and story to the public. It began with a German magazine called Stern who ran the initial story. I didn’t want to be interviewed again for another 6 months, and the next one was with POZ magazine in the US and it began to snowball from there.

At what point did this coverage shift your focus toward activism?

I had been doing some appearances and speeches since the first story ran. I met with the founders of the World AIDS Institute and together we decided to hold a press conference at the 19th International AIDS Conference in Washington, DC in 2012, where I would announce my interest in starting a foundation or a coalition in support of the effort to find a cure for AIDS. That’s really where it began because many of the international folks had never heard my story. Remember, I only came out as the Berlin Patient on December 8, 2010, so about a year and a half earlier. Many had never even heard that someone was cured. When we did the press conference, it was off site, and about an hour before we had to double the size of the room to accommodate all of the US and other media outlets from around the world. I think that’s when people began to see me as a potential leader. From there we began holding meetings and the idea of a Cure for AIDS Coalition really began to take flight.

Then from 2012 you have been searching for ideal partnerships to move this forward, is that right?

Exactly, which is how you and I met you through Dr. Shekdar of the Research Foundation to Cure AIDS.

Right, so can you tell me a little about how the search for partnerships has gone, and how you arrived at the Research Foundation to Cure AIDS?

To be truthful, as it relates to the Research Foundation to Cure AIDS, we were actually somewhat skeptical. You know, I have a pretty good bullshit meter and when looking into Dr. Shekdar’s biotech called Chromocell, it was puzzling because they have done amazing work on things like developing artificial tastes, and so I wasn’t too sure how this would pan out as it relates to a cure for HIV. And as you can imagine, it was quite a process to find the right kinds of organizations to partner with as it relates to our mission. It took from mid October of last year until now to gain the level of comfort that we’ve reached with the Research Foundation to Cure AIDS. We helped launch their organization in New York City in May of this year and we are thrilled with the opportunities of our working together. But in the end, the fact that he wants to build a coalition of both medical researchers and social scientists in the pursuit of a cure is exactly what we were looking for in a partner.

I understand that the long-term goal is to roll out a feasible cure for HIV, but what else does your organization, the Cure for AIDS Coalition, seek to accomplish in the more immediate future?

Our main goal is to foster an environment of collaboration, of working together and to stop the territoriality that we have witnessed happening over the past few years within the scientific, medical and AIDS community on the road to a cure for AIDS. Specifically, at the NIH cure meeting late last year, we officially launched the Cure Report, which is an information website and online database where people can go to if they want to learn more about AIDS cure research that is being conducted. We’ve listed all the HIV cure related studies by state and by country. It also acts as a discussion forum for prevention, treatment and the vaccine trials. Our overall mission is to focus on HIV cure awareness, education and support for full funding for HIV cure research. In essence we wanted to create a voice for a cure. The other thing we would like to kick off soon, is a CCR5 Delta 32 registry. Which is the genetic mutation that led to my being cured. In essence, my doctor who cured me, Dr. Gero Huetter, started the process to create a CCR5 registry it in Germany, and we would like to bring it to the United States and make it accessible to all HIV cure researchers around the world. It would also be a way for patients to participate in the process to find a cure for AIDS. Cure researchers are telling us that they are excited about our CCR5 registry idea, because accessing that kind of information has been a real barrier for some of the cure research moving forward. The other thing we would like to kick off is the first International Cure AIDS Day to help get out the word that a cure for HIV is possible and gather more support for the global effort. Those are the three main things we are working on right now. But it is just the beginning as it relates to our work under the Cure for AIDS Coalition.

While civil unrest continues to pervade the east of Ukraine, a new generation of artists and musicians in Kiev are creating wide spectrum of sounds and spectacles. At the forefront of this burgeoning scene is Lyudska Podoba (Human Shape), a band devoted to shattering cultural ideals of patriarchy and pushing the boundaries of identity politics through a range of human emotion and experimental electro pop fantasies. I had the pleasure of interviewing Gosha and Anatoly of Lyudska Podoba on a grassy hill in the Baikov Cemetary, one that dates back as far as 1833. While the black smoke of a crematorium rose above us, they described to me the origins of the band, the importance of community, and their ambition to use experimental pop music as Trojan horse.

DJL - Daniel Jack Lyons, G - Gosha, A - Anatoly

DJL: Can you guys tell me how you came together as a band?

G: I had an idea to create music and wanted to find a quality singer. I collaborated with some singers before, but had to basically explain to them how to sing. I told my friend that I was looking for a singer, he introduced me to Anatoly at the I love Kiev festival. After the festival we met several times, and then we made the “Human Shape” song, and I suggested to use this name for the band. And then Tolik (short name for Anatoly) invited Iana to the band, and I invited our percussionist Sasha.

DJL: Anatoly, you were working on something else before Lyudska Podoba, is that right?

A: Yeah, I have been working in visual arts since 2004. It was while working with a performance group, that I accidentally figured out that I could sing. That group was called “Penoplast” (Styrofoam). It was a performance group, which contained various types of people. Eventually the group disbanded, but my wish to sing and work in music only grew. I found these musicians - actually, we found each other, some guys that that were interested in experimental electronic music. It was more about music, experimental music. But in some time the band decided that they didn’t need a singer. And I just started to have vocal classes too!

DJL: With songs like Transexual and lyrics like, “my lover is not a kisser, he’s got a girl and principals”, sexuality seems to play a part in the music that you create. How much would you say that sexuality informs your creative process?

A: Of course my sexuality and my art are connected. Stories in my lyrics are the stories from my life, my impressions on what happens around me, some are happy moments and others are failures. I created two illustrated porn novels, titled: “The Most Pornographic Books in the World”, which contain both text and drawings. In the first book there is only one song lyric, which has become a Human Shape song. The second book was all comprised of lyrics. And both songs and lyrics are connected with my life and sexuality. I don’t distinguish between art and life.

DJL: Have you met any resistance, or homophobic response in Ukraine to either the music or the books?

A: Ukraine is a homophobe country, and this is really a problem. And there were cases when the art gallery was burnt because there was a film screening and discussion of the problem of homophobia. After this I created artwork, which I performed on the streets. It was called “Homophobia today - Genocide tomorrow”. For me the issue of sexuality in general is extremely important, and diverse sexualities in particular. I attempt to discuss the issue of diverse sexualities in a very simple and accessible way so that my thoughts and ideas might be heard not only in galleries or small and closed creative communities, but by the most possible number of people.

DJL: And this is true in work with Human Shape as well?

A: Yes pop-music is a great tool for this. I consider the music of Human Shape to be something like a Trojan horse. We are invited to play shows and festivals because we are an electro pop band that is fun to dance to, thanks to the good mood that we create through performance. But the lyrics are full of nuanced complexities about sexuality. And if we can get people to dance first, we may actually be able to change their perceptions once the lyrics hit them. Through provocative song lyrics we are hoping to promote discussion, because through discussion people often find answers to questions that they didn’t even know they had. Basically, Ukraine is homophobe, and patriarchal. Its Patriarchal social model has a significant impact on its population. People are raised with some traditions and rules, and the music helps to shatter those rules, and gives good reasons for discussions.

G: As for me, our art is not only about sexuality or homosexuality. The accent is more on humanity in general and all the different forms of expression, including sexuality and others. We were developing our manifest, and was the sentiment that every human has a right to make mistakes, as long as a mistake is a way for learning and developing. That is at the core of Human Shape.

DJL: What’s next for Human Shape?

G: We plan to release an album soon. We plan to do it in the next 2 months or so. As well, we plan to have more people who listen our music with our lyrics. We want to increase our audience for this type of music and for such content. For now our audience is limited. On our performances I see the same people, I even know what songs they like the most, and to which ones they prefer to dance. I want our audience to grow.

A: Regarding the album, we have enough material not for one, but for 2 albums. We met in 2012, and since than have been creating new material quite consistently. Now we are looking for the sound producer. We had different options, but had no time to work on this. But I hope that it will happen soon. Yet we perform at different events, this week we participate in the festival in Kyiv, we were invited to the queer festival in Saint-Petersburg in September and also a queer festival in Minsk.

Since leaving Argentina, Cecilia Gentili has embarked on an incredible journey of transformation, ultimately turning her into a widely respected advocate for trans rights in New York City. Currently, she serves as the Trans Health Coordinator for the APICHA Community Health Center, while continuing her work as a mentor and an advocate within her local community in Jackson Heights, Queens. But becoming who she is today has not come without struggle. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Cecilia and hearing first hand how her story has unfolded. Our conversation went something like this:

Daniel Jack Lyons: What was it like for you growing up in Argentina?

Cecilia Gentili: I am from a really small town, and I always knew that I wasn’t a boy, but it was really hard for other people to see it. When I was a child, people were getting killed in my country for thinking differently — it was dangerous. After all the years of having a dictatorship, people like my mom just chose to be quiet. But me, I wasn’t quiet. No, I was loud — so very loud! Laughs. I had to make concessions with everyone in order to survive there.

Did you begin your transition in Argentina?

I did, but it wasn’t going anywhere. Transitioning was difficult in a country that was relatively new with democracy at the time. Argentina became very progressive later, but at that time there was still a lot to fight for, and I made a choice not to fight. I felt like it was too much for me, so I left.

So you moved to Miami. What was that like?

It was like Disneyland! It was amazing to me — I loved it. And I was totally broke. I only knew one person. But I knew that that was the beginning of my final step into becoming who I wanted to become. I moved there around my birthday, and I remember telling a friend that this is the last time I will be celebrating my birthday using my old name. The next birthday I will be Cecilia, from then on.

How long were you in Miami?

I was in Miami for five years. It was great, but it was also difficult. It was full of experiences. I didn’t want to become a new person. It was more about changing other people’s perceptions of me. I made physical changes and my appearance began to match the way I felt. But Miami is a crazy place — for many people it represents freedom. But I took freedom to a whole other level. And I don’t regret any of it.

Is this where you first connected with a trans community?

No. Well, I had trans friends and everything, but I never felt part of the community. It was very hollow; it was all about being pretty, about clothes and shoes. I mean, it was fun and it was beautiful. But there is no comparison to the community that I am part of now in New York. Don’t get me wrong; I still want shoes! But I also want to make a difference, and my community here is rewarding in that way.

So when you moved from Miami to New York, that’s when you found a sense of community among other trans women?

Not exactly. When I moved here I kept doing the same kind of thing. I was a very active drug user at the time Essentially I found my community by hitting rock bottom. I was totally broke, with a legal/immigration situation, feeling awful and realizing that drugs had become a problem. It broke me.

I had an immigration case that was very complicated because of my situation. I found a lawyer, but you know lawyers have like no feeling, so they were asking me questions and I was like, “um, that’s a little difficult for me to answer!” But he recommended me to find a counselor which is how I ended up at the LGBT center, where I attended a trans group.

It was this community that brought me back to life. I was able to fix my addiction and immigration, and I was able to find another kind of job. This group of trans women who had been through similar things got me back on my feet. I didn’t look for my community they found me.

Is this how you became involved in activism?

Yes, definitely. When I saw other trans people who were using their experiences to help others in similar situations, I realized right then that I too wanted to do that.

You have become known as an inspirational group leader, particularly for your group in Queens. How did that group come about?

Years ago, one of my friends said, “You would be perfect for this group of girls in Queens.” Even though I started a new job that is very demanding, I still make time for that group because they are very close to my heart. Especially because I don’t only identify as a trans person, I also identify as Latina. My reality growing up is very much from the perspective of some one from Latin America. And coming to realize how important that part of my identity is, has had an impact on my work as an activist.

Realizing ones own identity can certainly have a powerful effect on the work of an activist...

Exactly, and that is the beauty of identity — it allows you to choose how you want to identify. Because ultimately you choose how you want to be seen. I mean, we are all so many things; I am so many things, but if I have to tell you two things, then I am trans and I am Latina.

As a trans person, do you feel included in the LGBT community?

I feel sometimes that the “T” is not really represented in LGBT. And I understand why. The reality of a transgender person is just so different than the average person. Getting a job, for instance, or even just keeping a job if you want to transition, is a very different reality than if you just want to have sex with the same gender. Finishing school is a lot harder if you’re trans. The reality of a trans person is very complex. I don’t want to take away from what gay men and women go through, but the “T” has its own unique problems that are not being addressed. And if you happen to be a trans of color, it’s even worse. 

As a trans activist, what kind of message do you have for the LGBT community at large?

I would tell my gay community that you have a wonderful opportunity now to allow yourself as a community to learn more about the “T” in LGBT. If this is a moment of joy due to victories of marriage equality, it is also a time to be open to learning about the rest of the community. When it comes to the trans community there are a lot of disparities. And since the trans community has been part of the fight for marriage equality, then the “L,” the “G,” and the “B” should also be part of the fight for trans rights.

We are in a circle that is so hard to break. If you’re trans, you are less likely to finish school, and if you don’t finish school, its harder to get a job, and if you cant get a job then your more likely to turn to sex work. And for the record, I have nothing against sex work, but I feel that sex work should be a choice, and within that choice there should be rights and protection, but unfortunately the law does not see it that way. As it is, sex work is a very risky practice. All of these things are a chain reaction that I have seen in many girls’ lives, and if we are going to make improvements we have to begin with the root causes, which comes from a better understanding of trans reality. People need to know that we are not an enemy. We are just one kind of community.

You have become such an important role model for many of the young trans women that you work with. Hw does that feel?

As a person who is working in services, and as a trans health coordinator, the girls come to me and they say, “Miss Cecilia, do you think I will be able to make it?” And I say, “Your damn right! It’s not going to be a piece of cake. You better work for it, and it ain’t easy at all. You know why? Because you trans, but you can do anything you want.”

Having a platform to carry this message of empowerment has changed my life. You know, work is really hard, and I work a lot, but I might come across a new person, and after a meeting with me I can see them smile and be hopeful — this is what I live for now. Being able to play a part in someone else’s process of empowerment is extremely empowering for myself.

But it’s still really hard, because with that I have to whiteness all the terrible things that happen to my community. I see them everyday losing jobs, not getting the same opportunities, being faced with incredible disparities, and it hurts. But when you learn that the trick is to make all that pain become energy to be a factor of change, it’s beautiful.

At 27, Michael Ighodaro has lived through enough life-changing experiences to fill the pages of a memoir, yet his work has only just begun. From his beginnings as a grassroots organizer supporting homeless gay teens from a street corner in Benin to founding the first Nigerian organization to support HIV-positive gay men and on to becoming one of the leading African gay rights advocates, Michael’s accomplishments haven’t been gained without struggle. Suffering a brutal attack last October, Michael has been granted political asylum in the U.S. and currently lives in New York, where he and I spoke about the events that brought him here and the current state of affairs for the LGBT community in Nigeria.

Daniel Jack Lyons: What is it like right now to be gay in Nigeria?

Michael Ighodaro: As you may know, Nigeria stigmatizes gay people a lot, so recently they were trying to pass a bill that says any gay person can go to jail for 14 years just for being gay. And if your family — brothers or sisters, parents — know that you are gay and they do not turn you in, then they too can go to jail for up to 10 years. It makes life very difficult. You can’t get an apartment, for instance, because if a landlord knows that you are gay, then they wont rent to you, for fear of going to jail. Two males cannot share a room, because it would be assumed that they are gay. So, yeah, your mom, your dad, brothers, sisters, landlords, friends, everyone around you cannot know that you are gay, because if they do, they will become agitated and stay away.

DJL: What kind of effect does this have on the gay community?

Ighodaro: Actually, the gay community is really large in Nigeria. If you need, for instance, to leave your house tonight, there are numbers that you can call where someone would come pick you up, give you a place to stay, give you food, even if they have never met you before. Because of the extreme situation in Nigeria, the gay community has a very strong family sense of unity. If someone is gay in Nigeria, they are my brother, they are my sister, because if we don’t have that kind of family, then we don’t have any family.

DJL: Were you able to connect with this community when you were growing up?

Ighodaro: Not at first. I told my parents pretty early on that I was gay. My mom was a church leader, and my dad was a very traditional man. When I told them, they tried everything to make me straight. They took me to witch doctors, they took me to see so many pastors, I had to fast for seven days and nights, so many things. I thought that there must be something wrong with me, but when I started high school, I made friends that were like me. And that love between friends made me realize that I was not alone, and that there was nothing wrong with me. We were really close with each other, and still are, but they are all gone; [they] either left Nigeria or they died.

DJL: How old were you when you moved out of your parents’ home?

Ighodaro: I was 17 when I moved out, and I moved in with one of my friends. His dad was an American, and his mom was Nigerian, and he was gay. They had a big house, and I was allowed to stay there with friends. There were five of us in one room.

DJL: Was it around this time that you got involved in advocacy?

Ighodaro: Yes, you could say that. We knew other people being thrown out of their parents’ houses, so we began to all meet in the same place every day. It was a corner. We called it Jerry’s corner [laughs], because the guy’s name was Jerry. Anyway, we would meet there everyday around 2 p.m. I got very involved in helping people find places to stay and counseling them, and that is how the activist in me became alive. People began to ask me if I could visit their homes and speak with their mom about being gay. I became known for helping people in this way, and people called me many names, like “tall boy,” “universe boy,” because I was traveling so much!

DJL: So from your grassroots beginnings on Jerry’s corner, how did your work as an advocate progress?

Ighodaro: Well, at first I began to work on ways to bring large groups of LGBT people together. I helped to organize some gay parties in hotels; we knew some gay hotel managers that would help secure it for a weekend. Gay people from all over Nigeria would come to meet others like them and enjoy a safe space for a couple of days. While organizing one of these events in Abuja, a friend told me about an LGBT organization there, so I went to visit, and I saw them talking about HIV. It was the first time I had seen HIV discussed for gay people. Until then I thought HIV was for heterosexuals, because it was always related to pregnancy or talked about in terms of intercourse with a vagina, and there was nothing about anal sex, so I figured, “OK, it’s not for us.” When I saw this presentation about how HIV can be contracted through anal sex, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing. After the presentation I spoke to the director of the organization and told him that I wanted to be part of it. He told me that I could start as a peer educator. I started going to the field and handing out condoms and lubricants, giving information about HIV prevention, and they were giving me a stipend, which was $30 a month. For most people being a peer educator was something extra, but for me it was my only job. The organization then hired me as a cleaner for the office. This was a great opportunity for me, because apart from cleaning and running errands, I was asked to help type presentations and reports, to attend meetings, and I began to learn so much about human rights, gay rights, how to talk about HIV and health. I also moved into the office and slept there. Eventually the other staff stopped thinking of me as the cleaner. I was doing so much there that they treated me like a member of the staff, but at the end of the day, I was still cleaning the office.

DJL: Were you eventually given more responsibility within the organization?

Ighodaro: Yes, and I began working very closely with a doctor there. I would travel with him, doing HIV testing. I was the counselor. The emotions in me were so much to handle, because it was like out of five tests, maybe one would be negative. Counseling so many people who were finding out they were positive made me think about how I had been just as naïve as they were. I had a feeling that I too was positive, but [I] was really scared to get the test. I finally did, though, and tested positive. I immediately became very scared for my friends. After I got tested I started going back to Benin on weekends to visit friends and bring them information with condoms and lubricants. Many of my friends also tested positive, and I realized that there were very few resources for gay people living with HIV. Everything was focused on prevention. So I started focusing more on giving support to people who were positive, because without that support there was a lot of stigma. I started leading a large support group for HIV-positive gay men in Nigeria and eventually started my own organization that provides services to gay men living with HIV. And that is what brought me to the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., where I first met you.

DJL: Right, but then not long after returning home from the conference, you moved to New York. Can you speak a little about what happened during that period and what brought you to New York?

Ighodaro: Sure. So while I was at one of the tents in the conference, this guy from The Washington Post came, and he asked what we were doing. So I said, “Yeah, this is what we do, this why we’re here, etc.” He was really interested and said that he would like to find out more. I thought he was gay, so I gave him my number and told him that we were all going out for a drink later and that he was welcome to come.

DJL: Did he tell you that he was a reporter?

Ighodaro: No, he didn’t. But he came to the bar that night and asked a lot of questions about what I do in Nigeria and everything. Then, at the end of the conference, he came to one of the closing receptions. He took my picture, which didn’t seem strange, because everyone was taking pictures. That was the last time I saw him. A couple days after the conference, someone forwarded me this article that read something like, “Gay Man From Nigeria Enjoys Gay Life In D.C.” I couldn’t believe it. I had no idea where it came from. I figured it out, but at first I didn’t feel bad about it. I figured it would just stay in the U.S. But the day before I left, my friend called me to tell me the article was all over Nigeria. And it was nothing about my work as an activist, but only about me going to gay parties and bars. It was terrible. My American friends told me not to go, but I was like, “But I have a job and a life. I must return.” When I got back I had to go straight to the hotel, because my roommate told me that his life was threatened because people had called in to the radio station and said, “I know this guy. I know where he lives.” I continued working from the hotel, but one night while waiting for a car, someone called my name, “Michael,” so I turned around, and that is the last thing I remember. I had several ribs broken, a shattered hand. It was really nasty. I tried to go to the hospital, but they wouldn’t treat me without first seeing a police report.

DJL: Why did they need a police report?

Ighodaro: Because if you get beaten late in the night, they need to see a police report to assure them that you are not a criminal. But I couldn’t go to the police, because if I tell them I was beaten for being gay, they would just detain me. So I went back to the hotel with the pains that I had. In the morning I went to a clinic that was able to help me. But at this point I had so many messages on my phone, on my Facebook, saying that “we are going to find you and kill you” and everything. All my friends were telling me that I must leave. It was a hard thing to hear. But luckily I had an American visa from the conference, so in the next few days I collected my things and left.

DJL: How soon did you begin the process of applying for political asylum?

Ighodaro: Right away, and it was a very easy process. I was granted asylum within three months. What helped most, though, was beginning to work again. I arrived in October, and already by November I was busy with a lot of advocacy work with the UN, UNAIDS, Housing Works, AMFAR, African Services at GMHC, and still very much involved with the work I began in Nigeria and other African countries, which is really where my heart is.