Dee Dee Chamblee was diagnosed at a time when people were dying all around her, and she damn near expected to get HIV. Living in the South in 1987, she describes what was happening around her as a kind of holocaust. However, even after the drug use, sex work and jail time, Dee Dee has risen like a phoenix and founded LaGender, a transadvocacy group in Atlanta.
After coming back from living with only 3 T cells, Dee Dee knows that it takes more than medicine to be healthy -- it takes will, perseverance and self-esteem. You have to show that you want to live, and Dee Dee knew that God had a mission for her. Where she once entered jail through its back doors, she now goes in through the front to help other transgender people just like her make it through the system and live a life full of opportunity, not tragedy.
I want to start out by talking to you about when you found out that you were HIV positive. So, if you could just describe that situation, the date, and how you found out about your diagnosis.
I was diagnosed 25 years ago, in 1987. And it was during the time when I was expecting it. There were people dying all around me. We couldn't even keep up with the people that were dead. We would have to call and make sure: Did you tell me that somebody died that day?
It was like a holocaust. It was a tragedy. We had no counseling to get through it. And so, when I became positive, I kind of denied it, went into denial for like seven years. Did drugs, alcohol, prostituted, and did the whole realm. And, really, literally was trying to kill myself, because that's the way it seemed that the world wanted me to just disappear. Nobody wanted to look at me. People were very discriminatory toward transgenders, as far as getting jobs and stuff like that. So, my only choice was to prostitute at that time.
Once I found out, and after the seven years of denial, I realized that I hadn't went nowhere. So, I decided I better brush the dirt off of me and kick the flowers to the side -- that the funeral is not going to be held, it doesn't seem. I got up and I started trying to find me a support group, someone that could help me love myself again.
And I did find it. I found a group called Common Ground. When I first went there, I couldn't believe these people. When I first went up in the yard -- they was in the yard when I got there, at the house -- and they had this fried chicken. It was piled up so high. I had never seen fried chicken piled up that high. And I said, "I wonder what kind of people these are here."
So, I went on up there and I met them. They told me about the group. There was a group that they had every day, and they provided lunch for you. It was a spiritual group, where they had poetry and spiritual meditation and different exercises like catalyst, massage, Reiki massage, and different things like that, that we could do to improve our whole emotional and physical being.
I started going every day. And they started loving me like I was. They didn't have no judgments. These people are special that have been sent to me by God. They taught me to love myself, and I stayed there at that group for like five years. And they poured so much love in me. I said, "Oh, what am I going to do without this love, you know, poured into me? I know I'm not supposed to just receive all this, and not do anything with it." So that started my next level in my journey to find out what I was supposed to do.
And where I had came from, the things that had happened to me -- going to jail, prostituting, drugs, and all that -- all those things were big, bad issues in my life. But it turned out, those happened to be the issues that gave me triumph, too. Because even though I went through the jailhouse in the back of the jailhouse doors, then it turned around to where I was able to go through the front and do support groups in there for the transgender people. I got on the task force with the Atlanta police department, and we developed a relationship with the city chief of police. And that brought about a change.
Dee Dee, I just want to go back real quickly to when you were diagnosed. I know that you now live in Atlanta, Ga. Were you diagnosed in Atlanta?
Yes, I was diagnosed here at Grady Hospital, during the time when they didn't want to touch you, and all the horrible, horrible stories that we had to go through.
So, you were sick, and you were admitted to the hospital? And that's where they tested you?
OK. And how old were you when that happened?
I think I was 27.
So, you felt ill, went to the hospital and they admitted you. They tested you, and that's when they told you that you had an HIV diagnosis. Do you have an AIDS diagnosis, or do you have HIV?
I have an AIDS diagnosis.
Did that happen at that hospitalization? Did they tell you that you had AIDS?
Do you remember what your T-cell count was during that time that you got diagnosed?
It was like 30, because I had tuberculosis. When I healed from the tuberculosis, then my numbers came back up a little. Then I got sick again, and they fell back down to 3. I lived on those 3 T cells -- I call them the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost -- for the next 10 years.
Bactrim [co-trimoxazole] really was the thing that kept me alive then. Because I didn't want to take the medications that were out during that time because of the side effects that people were experiencing. The way it makes you look -- you know, your skin, everything -- it was just horrible and my system couldn't take it. It was too harsh.
And, after living on those 3 T cells, it taught me that, because I had built up my self-esteem and my mental health had improved to such an extent, that that really was a key ingredient, besides the medicine, that helped me to keep going.
When you were admitted to the hospital, did you suspect that it might be HIV? Were you aware that you might be at risk?
I knew. I was doing everything everybody that was dying around me was doing. So I knew my time was coming, too. I hadn't done anything different than they had did. We were having the same men, you know, turning the same tricks.
Do you know who you got HIV from?
No, I couldn't, not possibly.
After you got your diagnosis in the hospital, do you remember who was the first person you told?
The first person I told, I think, was my mother.
And when was that?
That was like five years after the seven-year period. After seven years of denial, five years after that I was able to tell my mother.
How did you start that conversation?
I just told her.
Was this over the phone, or was it in person?
Yes, over the phone. I just told her. And I told her about the medicine I was taking, and everything. She said, "Oh, I don't believe you got that." It was just like she just brushed it out of her mind. "You don't have that." I looked at it in a positive way, you know -- that she's believing that I don't have it.
Did she ever come to the reality that you are living with HIV?
I talk about it all the time. My sisters know about it. They have even worked at my organization, volunteered. She doesn't say too much about it, or ask any questions about it. I have to just tell her different things that are happening in my life. Then I explain things about HIV and AIDS along the way. And she don't ask me any questions. I just have to do that and then that's how she's getting her education. Because she don't want me to know that I'm actually educating her.
Think about people that you told about your HIV status that were family or friends. Did any of those relationships change, either for the better or for worse, when you told them?
With my family, it was about the same. Because they figured, I guess, to be a transgender, HIV is right along the same. We already felt like you was dead when we found out you were transgender.
Talk to me about that. That's a sad phrase that you just said. Tell me about when you came to them and said, "I'm transgender."
Yeah. See, they went through a mourning process. My two sisters went through because they mourned the loss of a brother. Because they had a brother no more. And my mother, she went through mourning because she lost a son. She has embraced me way further than I thought she could have ever been capable of doing. Because of the time she was raised in, and how she was taught, I did not think she would be able to get to the point she is today. My sisters, they didn't have too much trouble with it.
What year was this that you shared with them that you were transitioning?
I think it was '90.
OK. So, in 1990, you shared that information with them. Do you remember where you were? Was it over the phone? Was it face to face?
It was on the phone, never in face to face -- not with my mama.
Why is that?
Because she had thunderbolts come out of her eyes, and smoke would come out her ears. I was deathly afraid of her. I was afraid of my mother up until my 30s, really. Still. She had that kind of control, you know.