This Positive Life: Cecilia Chung on Violence, Gender, Prisons, Family and Healing
May 16, 2013
It was 1993 when Cecilia Chung was diagnosed with HIV while living in San Francisco. Born Catholic, she thought she was being punished for coming out as transgender. "'You transitioned. You're an abomination,'" she remembers thinking. "'This is God's way of telling you He doesn't approve.'" After a rocky few years, Cecilia reconciled with her family and now maintains a relationship with both parents. She has worked for years as an advocate for other transwomen, HIV-positive people and people of color.
As a transgender Asian woman and a formerly incarcerated violence survivor who was also involved with sex work, her experience is connected to a number of groups that are vulnerable to HIV in ways that are often ignored by institutions. But Cecilia's real-life story is much more than a confirmation of statistics. In this interview, she opens up about her history with assault; how transitioning affected her former career in finance; her tips on dating; and her frustration at being an overachiever with a low T-cell count.
This interview was conducted in July 2012, at the XIX International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C.
Can you start by describing how you found out you were HIV positive, and where you were in your life at that time?
Wow. That's a big question you're asking me, where I was at the time when I found out I was HIV positive. It was around 1993 when I tested HIV positive. At that time, I just came out to my family as being transgender. It was a very difficult time, because I had just lost my job, and my family was struggling to understand what it meant for me to be transgender. And I had a falling out with my family, which caused me to really separate from my family.
Because I was on the edge of being homeless -- as a matter of fact, I was temporarily homeless for a while. With no job, no place to go, I ended up in a very dark place. I did some sex work, and I also self-medicated. I actually got arrested a couple of times for solicitation.
At the time, I was living in San Francisco. I moved to San Francisco at the end of 1984, and I've been living in San Francisco since.
You said that you lost your job at the time that you also tested positive. Did losing your job have to do with your transitioning, or was there another circumstance there?
It certainly had something to do with my transitioning, I believe. I was actually working two jobs at the time. One was in a very conservative environment, and the other was relatively conservative, as well. My main job was in a financial company. I was fresh out of college. I got this really nice job working in the financial company, training their account executives to sell accounts. I'd get an override on their commissions. For someone who had just graduated from college, making a six-figure income, that's really good.
Then I had a second job, which was as a court interpreter in a neighboring county. That's a relatively conservative job, because I had to work with judges all the time.
When I first started to transition, I realized I really couldn't be working in that financial environment anymore, because it's very stressful and very intense. I had to get up at 3 o'clock in the morning, and I'd work all the way until the New York stock market closes. Then I had to wait until the Asian market opened, the Nikkei market, which is the Tokyo market, and watch it for another three hours. Basically, by then, I would have worked around 16 hours a day. That was taking a toll on me. So I decided that I would leave that job, and I could just work the court interpreter's job.
But shortly after, a judge started to notice that some physical change was happening with me. The judge asked the coordinator to ask me if they should address me as Mr. or Miss. So the coordinator approached me and she relayed the question to me. I was a little bit surprised. I guess, when I was starting to take estrogen at the time, I started to develop some breast tissue. But I didn't realize that the judge noticed it under my suits and my shirts. I guess it was kind of noticeable by that point. Shortly after, my contract with the county got terminated.
It's really hard to prove that it was because of my transition. But I guess, you know, that news travels fast.
Indeed. So then, soon after that was when you tested positive. What led you to get tested to begin with?
Because of some of the situations that happened with me even though I was very careful. I tried to be very careful, but there are things that happened during that time that were not in my control. For instance, when I was arrested, I actually was coerced into having unprotected sex while I was in the county jail. And that certainly put me at risk. I had no idea of that person's status, and it was a very unpleasant experience. I've actually spoken about that many times already.
Also, during my time on the streets, I'm not sure if my drug use put me at risk at all, or if there were any other situations that might have put me at risk. Because of that, I wanted to be safe. And I thought by taking a test at least I would have a baseline.
I did take a test a year prior to 1993, and that test result came back negative.
Your HIV-positive friend was the first person whom you told that you were positive. Was it because you knew that he was also HIV positive?
Well, he wasn't the first person that I told. I actually went with another friend to get tested and he was my support system at the time. But he moved back to Guam, so I haven't seen him in a long time. He and that friend are actually cousins. He suggested that I should talk to Vince -- that's my friend's name. So I took his advice to do that.
But the first person I talked to after that was my mom. It was very difficult for me, for many reasons. One was because I'm Chinese. There are a lot of values that, as a Chinese son, I was taught. [I was taught] that, when I grew up, I was supposed to take care of my parents and make sure that they live comfortably. I'm supposed to make sure that I provide for them. The thought that I might die before they do was something that I was never prepared for.
Second: Catholic guilt. I was raised Catholic. And somehow that whole idea, or that internal chatter, all started to talk to me, and say, "This is what happens. This is God's way of punishing you. You transitioned. You're an abomination. This is God's way of telling you He doesn't approve." It was very hard to bear. So I decided to pick up the phone and call my mom. I told her that I might die before she does, and I told her that I tested HIV positive. Even though, at that time, we didn't really have a good relationship, I thought I owed her at least that.
I don't remember telling her anything since, because there were really no other things I could tell her. There's very little I knew about what it means to be HIV positive. And I really tried not to think about it too much. I don't know whether it was denial or whether it was just that, subconsciously, I thought that, by not thinking about it, the virus would not catch up as fast.
Even though the counselor said most people only have six months to a year, two years later, I still didn't get sick. I tested positive in 1993 and I didn't really get sick at all for quite a while. Yeah. So ... knock on wood.
How did your mother react when you told her this? Did the rest of your family also find out -- whether you told them, or she did?
How did my family find out about my diagnosis? That, I would not know for sure. I think it took my mom quite a while before she disclosed that to my dad. I think she would pick up the phone and call my aunt in Los Angeles first, because they were very close. We all need someone to share everything with, and so no one's closer than your own sister, I guess. I think that she shared that with her sister, my aunt. That's probably all I knew at that time.
I really didn't know how we could process it. I felt really alone for a long time, because my family and I didn't reconcile until later on in my journey. My mom and I reconciled in the middle of 1995 ... truly reconciled in the middle of 1995.
How did that come about?
Not without more trauma. I continued to have a really hard life, but it never prepared me for more trauma. During that time, between 1993 and 1995, I experienced some sexual violence. And in the middle of 1995, two men were trying to sexually assault me. I fought back. One of them pulled a knife and stabbed me. I blocked it with my wrist and they punctured my artery. I screamed. They were chasing me in a parking lot. Somebody heard me scream. I passed out. They kicked me and the police came. They got arrested. I got rushed to the hospital. At the hospital, they asked me whom they should call. And I guess, when I was half-conscious, I asked them to call my mom. My mom came to the hospital. That's when we reconciled.
I think that's when my mom realized that my transition was not for fun, that it was truly who I was. I was just trying to live my true self. It was a long journey, but finally, I think, she got it. But it's a price to pay.
How is your relationship with your family, and your mom, now? Is she still with us?
I think that knife [attack], ironically, started the healing process for my family. Whatever blood bled out of me also helped to bleed out all the bad blood I had with my family. In many ways, the healing with my mother starts with her coming to the hospital, visiting me. And then, shortly after, more healing began.
In 1998, my mom decided to pay for my sexual reassignment surgery. That very year, at my birthday, my grandparents came with her and took me out to lunch. It was the first time my grandparents saw me as my true self, and my grandmother even told me that I looked beautiful. Because of that reconciliation, I got to spend more time with my grandparents before they passed away. My grandfather actually passed away in May of this year, and my grandmother passed away in 2004. So, without that healing process, I would not have been able to spend that six more years with my grandmother. And without this kind of relationship, I would not have been able to be by my grandfather's bedside when he passed away.