Now is that time of year to give thanks to all the blessings that we enjoy in this great country. When my great, great grandparents first settled in St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1847, they brought with them steamer trunks full of books in the original German—romance novels, encyclopedias, scientific publications, and a history book of America. They were seeking out a country free of persecution. In essence they were searching for a new beginning. They were hoping to settle in a country built on the principles of freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and freedom of thought. Sure, our nation was not free for everyone. Slavery still existed; millions of Americans lived with barely enough to eat; and disease was rampant in the big cities (cholera, typhoid fever, and whooping cough were the three leading causes of death for infants and the young). Missouri was a state that many in the mid-1800s sought out—land was cheap, the soil was rich, and hard work was rewarded fair and square. On a recent trip back to where I was born, I found St. Joe depressing—the downtown was bleak, the old farms were all but abandoned to cheap and brutal housing, and even the churches (once so freshly painted) were sorely in need of new aluminum siding. The Midwest of yesteryear was in steep decline. The rustbelt had taken over the cornbelt. And there were no gay bars, alternative cafés, not even a decent dive bar for Kansas City Barbecue ribs. It was a hometown that had lost its hometown feeling.
This month’s cover story subject, Our Lady J, might understand how I’m feeling about lowering expectations for hometown nostalgia. In John Francis Leonard’s insightful interview with the behind-the-scenes star of today’s groundbreaking TV hit Pose, the producer and writer, exquisitely photographed by A&U’s own Sean Black, talks about leaving small-town America (Pennsylvania, in her case) for the cultural capitals of Los Angeles and New York City: “I couldn’t wait to get out. I didn’t see myself neither in my village, or in television or media.” Her artistic and musical talents saved her. From rural America to Carnegie Hall, this classically trained pianist and recording artist found a safe place for her gifts. “It felt natural—to take the shows I had been doing as a singer-songwriter and translate that into television.” As Leonard explains about an episode of Transparent penned by Our Lady J, “Shea, a trans woman, is about to embark on an intimate relationship with the show’s central character Josh, a cisgender straight male…, but has to disclose her positive HIV status….She says of this experience, ‘I felt like my voice was accelerated because of that. In a way it was a blessing to have that pressure on me because I had to refine my skills really fast. It was on the job training and the stakes were very high.’”
As Our Lady J illustrates and is so often the case, telling one’s story is a lifesaver. Now, more than ever in America, we need to create spaces for individuals who are transgender to tell their stories and document their experiences. The New York Times reports that the Department of Health and Human Services under Trump wants to interpret Title IX, the federal civil rights law that bans sex discrimination in federally funded schools, through a rigid gender lens, defining “sex as either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with.” I don’t even want to think about how research funds for transgender health might dry up or how many individuals will not receive the care they need because the government has rendered them invisible.
In this issue, we celebrate visibility: Advocate John Wikiera continues to put healthcare access front and center; the photographers behind The HIV Book Project spotlight Australians living with HIV/AIDS; and our seventeenth annual Holiday Gift Guide, which supports the tireless efforts of ASOs to recognize all the needs of our community. All of us, however, need to step forward, claim our HIV-positive space, and strike a pose!
David Waggoner is Editor in Chief and Publisher of A&U, the first national HIV/AIDS magazine in the U.S.