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VIEW:A tranny girl goes to the White House
by HESTER
2010-02-01

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by Helena Bushong

As I sit here, I can't help but ask the question, "Just how did I find myself headed to Washington, DC to advise on public policy at the White House?"

It's been a whirlwind fall that all started with me applying for and being selected as a member of the newly formed IL Alliance for Sound AIDS Policy ( IL ASAP ) , a group of statewide policy and advocacy leaders picked to increase community involvement in HIV/AIDS activities, and fight for fair policies for those living with and at risk for HIV and AIDS.

On Nov.12, 2009, IL ASAP was fortunate enough to take part in a National HIV/AIDS Strategy Focus Group. Jeffery Crowley, Director of the White House Office of National Aids Policy and Senior Advisor of Disability Policy was the guest at the focus group and listened as community members spoke to issues that need to be addressed when forming the National HIV/AIDS Strategy. I testified at the focus group meeting regarding the barriers facing transgender, women, and aging populations; I had a lot to say!

After the focus group, I spoke with Mr. Crowley as a follow up to my testimony and I offered him a business card in case he had any questions or needed further input from me. I was impressed that Mr. Crowley seemed to listen carefully to testimony, took notes and asked thoughtful questions. I thought to myself, "Who knows?"

I did not think about it anymore until I open my email in early December, and spotted an e-mail from the White House! Subject: Dec. 8, White House "Women and HIV" meeting. It was flagged: Importance—High.

At first, I thought it might be a joke. ( I do have some prankster friends ) . I returned to the e-mail to read it again. As I read further, I felt almost unable to breathe. The email went on:

Dear Colleagues,

We are in the process of finalizing the participant list for next Tuesday's meeting at the White House.

And we hope you are able to join us.

Regards, Adelle Simmons

I got up from my desk and walked around a bit to keep my composure and to breathe! One of my colleagues was concerned. "Is anything was wrong?" she asked. I pointed to the computer and asked if she would read the email. She did:

"President Obama has charged the Office of National AIDS Policy with the task of developing a national HIV/AIDS strategy that will address the goals of 1 ) reducing HIV incidence, 2 ) improving access to care for people living with HIV/AIDS, and 3 ) reducing HIV-related health disparities. As part of this effort, we have conducted a series of community discussions across the Country to obtain public input on the National HIV/AIDS Strategy. We are also hosting issues-specific expert meetings at the White House."

As my colleague continued to read, tears came to my eyes—this was real! A female transgendered person was being invited to the table at the White House to help develop a National HIV/AIDS Strategy regarding Women and HIV.

When I was first diagnosed with HIV, I expected, and sometimes hoped, I would be dead long before now. How would I gather the courage to live with yet more stigma, shame, and guilt? Every day I thought about death and how I knew I could not leave this planet without an honest attempt to leave at peace someday. Those thoughts have since been replaced with expressions of gratefulness. One's life will never be the same with this virus, but life can also be enriched by the experience of HIV/AIDS. After diagnosis, I gained a new perspective and started to give back and help others, as others had so often helped me.

When my colleague finished reading the email, we jumped, laughed, and then we sat quiet for a moment, letting it all sink in. After a time, my phone rang. It was Adelle Simmons, advisor of the Office of National AIDS Policy, calling to confirm I was planning to attend and to inform me that a security check must be conducted on all individuals attending White House meetings. "Oh God," I thought. I explained to her that I have an Illinois photo Driver's License, but at first, I did not tell her that the federal government has yet to change the gender marker on my Social Security card. So many of us trans folks do not have complete I.D. to suit the gender we live under. Ms. Simmons said that as long as I had a state I.D. with photo she would contact the Secret Service. They would have final say, but she would get a response within 24 hours.

I knew I was not going to sleep this night; I worried about my past. I wondered, "Will anything pop up to close the door to the White House for me?" The next day—Friday, Dec. 4—I checked my emails and there it was: From: Adelle Simmons Subject: December 8, White House "Women and HIV" Meeting Agenda. I was in!

I arrived at the airport early on Tuesday. I started to sweat as I came to the airport security check-in with boarding pass and photo I.D. in hand. There is always a bit of stress when a trans person has to show I.D. Trying my best not to faint, I stood in the line with about 12 or so folks ahead of me. Thankfully, all went well.

I arrived in D.C. late due to bad weather; if I wanted to make the meeting I had to hustle. Forty-five minutes later ( and $100 dollars poorer ) , I arrived just 15 minutes before the meeting that was due to start. As I arrived to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue I thought, "Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that I would someday be climbing the steps to a meeting at the White House."

The meeting room was small and intimate. The ladies searched out seats and greeted old friends and colleagues while we waited for the meeting to begin as I went about the room introducing myself and passing out my bullet point sheet.

What an amazing group of women! I met such folks as Donna Hubbard McCree, PhD, MPH, RPh, a Team Leader/ Behavioral Scientist Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Ravinia Hayes-Cozier, of the National Minority AIDS Council Ms Hayes-Cozier, Director of Government Relations and Public Policy Division. I also spoke briefly with Ms Angela Burt-Murray, Editor-in- Chief of Essence Magazine.

The meeting was opened by Valerie Jarrett of the White House Office of Public Engagement/Council on Women and Girls, and then Jeffrey Crowley of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy did the welcome and introduction, describing the focus groups he had witnessed across the country.

This day was a revelation to me. I realized how many people, especially women, are fighting to help those who are under served. How special I felt knowing women such as Dawn Averitt Bridge of the Well Project, Dazon Dixon Diallo of Sister Love, Inc. Tina Tchen of the White House Office of Public Engagement/Council on Women and Girls and 40 or so others in the room were gathered to help improve health care for women and transgender such as myself and others all across the country.

My overall sense was that Jeffery Crowley and his team has been working tirelessly, traveling the country to hold focus groups and collect community input to develop a National HIV/AIDS strategy. The message was clear: Our President is committed to a National HIV/AIDS prevention Strategy. There are unresolved issues which stand out as we face the prevention of HIV/AIDS, but this administration is resolved to tackle them head-on.

Afterwards, I got to speak with Jeffery Crowley and thank him for the invite. We also discussed the impact of SSI and disability rules as an obstacle to productive workers. Some people who are HIV positive are able and willing to work part time, but fears of losing the crucial medical benefits that come with disability force some into boredom and isolation at home.

I realize I owe my lucky stars a debt of gratitude for this opportunity. There have been moments in life when I was ready to give in, and I am grateful to those who exhorted me, "Never give up, Never." I want to thank them and assure them that I will continue to fight and be of service to my community. I will continue to share my experience in hopes that I may be able to pass on the hope that was given to me.

As I left the White House, I thought with a smile, "Tranny girl goes to the White House. Who would have believed it?" Before that day, even I might have balked at the idea, but now, anything is possible.


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