Everyone wants him to be in a certain category, says Brian Belovitch, which he finds really annoying. But if he had to pick one, reports the author of the new memoir Trans Figured: My Journey from Boy to Girl to Woman to Man, he would say that he's a cisgender gay male of trans experience.
"And I say that because, you know, I did [live] as a trans woman, for about 15 years ... in the '70s and '80s, those decades."
I met Brian years ago -- but not so far back that I knew his full story -- when he and his husband Jim had a sweet country house in rural Pennsylvania that happened to be next door to my ex-partner's ex-girlfriend's place that we'd run off to for long weekends.
I'd known Brian had lived as a woman, but it wasn't until we had overlapping work shifts at the legendary Park Slope Food Coop a few months back that I learned he had published his story. I downloaded it on my phone on the way home and read it straight through.
I didn't know that Brian survived a deeply violent upbringing, came out as queer in high school and began his first transition in Rhode Island, and then moved to New York as an affirmed woman who gained prominence in the club scene as well as playing cisgender female theater roles.
The book opens during the time Brian hit bottom in his drug use, and I felt the peculiar feeling of fearing for someone who I knew had somehow made it through to a beautiful life.
In reality, as well as on the page, Brian is an enticing and unflinching storyteller. He realizes his life doesn't fit the often-stigmatized but perhaps more acceptable binary narrative of transition to the so-called opposite gender.
But his lived reality affirms that there's a wider range of possible genders and gender journeys. And, as not only a twice-transitioned person, but also an abuse survivor, a person in recovery, an early recipient of hepatitis C therapy, and a person living long-term with HIV, he realizes his story can be lifesaving to others.
I'm sitting with Brian in the cozy apartment he shares with Jim, a horticulturalist, in a classic pre-war elevator building on a now-gentrified block in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. I'm here to find out more about his uncommon journey.
JD Davids: You have had a rather amazing, full, and at times very painful life. It was around the same time you began to consider transitioning back to male, your assigned gender at birth, when you found out that you're living with HIV?
Brian Belovitch: Yes, it was at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, actually, when I had transitioned from transgender to now back to my male gender. I was diagnosed in '87, and then I transitioned shortly after that in '88.
It took a while, obviously. It's not something you can just blink your eye and switch overnight, like some people might think. It's very involved.
JD: In just a few chapters of your fascinating memoir, you talk about learning that you're living with HIV in the era before effective treatment, just when you were coming into recovery. Then you go into the experiences you had in the bad old days of hard-to-take hepatitis C treatment, and you say there's a whole other book there about this period.
BB: Oh, yeah, absolutely. You know, I'm trying to come up with the concept or the idea for my next book. And I think that it's going to have a lot to do with, you know, the opposite side of transitioning, which is really transitioning and coming to terms with how I felt about returning to an identity that was, you know, in the past had been very painful and difficult. So, there's a whole other aspect to that, that there wasn't enough room in the book -- I was limited to 270 pages.
JD: What was the relationship between your diagnosis of HIV in the early days, and your shifting sense of your own gender?
BB: I did write a little bit about that time in history. And there's a difficult story in the book about when I received my diagnosis, from a doctor at Stuyvesant Polyclinic on the Lower East Side. I made the mistake of going alone, which ... don't ever do that, kids!
I went alone, and I walked in, and I didn't even barely touch a chair. And the doctor said, "Oh, so your results are positive," and I looked at him, like, really?
He's like, "Well, what did you expect?" He said, "You're a whore, you're a prostitute, you're a sex worker, trans woman, IV drug user," it was like check, check, check down the list.
And it all felt like it was in slow motion. Like, I'm sitting there thinking, I was newly sober, maybe about six months, and didn't have the wherewithal to, you know ... my activist life didn't flourish until later.
But, I didn't know what to say. That had such an effect, a profound impact on me -- the overt judgment in the medical profession. And I already knew what my gay brothers and sisters were going through with HIV and AIDS, and there was no treatment, no AZT, no nothing. And it was terrifying, really terrifying, the whole ordeal.
I was already struggling with the trans identity stuff in therapy, and in my early recovery, and so it was already in the forefront in my mind, and the freshness of the obstacles that I had lived so often in the '70s and '80s as a trans woman back then. It was like an open wound back then.
So, you know, I kind of thought, "Wow, if he's treating me like this," and I'd already had firsthand experiences from my friends, I thought, "Wow, I'm really in deep shit here."
So I wouldn't say it was the only reason why I decided to transition again, but it certainly was a part of it. I thought, "I'll die for sure." Oh, I went into survival mode. And so part of survival mode was feeling like [I needed to do what it took to] get care that you needed order to be able to make your way as a person with HIV.
To be a trans woman back then, in the '80s, was even more difficult than it is now, obviously. We didn't have the luxury of a lot of the lovely language that we have today, and the medical awareness, the health care awareness that we have dealing with trans patients today, we didn't have any of that ... it wasn't very forefront in my consciousness for another six months or so -- I still had to endure another six months of examination and reflection before I made that ultimate decision.
But that was definitely a turning point or a tipping point. I thought, "Wow, they'll just leave me dying in the hallway here somewhere."
Because they're so afraid, they couldn't wrap their heads around how to deal with someone of my gender, which I'd already experienced. So I'd already had that [experience of maginalization], but that particular episode was particularly upsetting.
JD: As you went through the first years of coping with your diagnosis, as well as adjusting to your gender decisions, what was that like? Was there a time where either or both gender and life with HIV just felt like, "Okay, I got it now?"
BB: You reminded me, JD, that once I did make that [gender] decision, the pushback that I got from the medical community was another hurdle. They were refusing to remove my [breast] implants for fear of lawsuit. I wrote about this in the book, when I went to some sort of volunteer medical plastic surgery clinic at a hospital, and I'm sitting in front of a bunch of students, and one of the professors started grilling me about my IV drug use, and my sex work. And, "Oh, you're a sex worker, right?"
So now I want to try to find my truth or find some sense of stability or calm in my life, and now I'm being discriminated against because of that. I totally wasn't prepared for that at all right. I was like, "Wow, this is really fun."
JD: So when was it that you found this calm place? How did you find it?
BB: Well, luckily, I didn't give up. And I eventually found a lovely gay surgeon who was completely sympathetic, lovely fellow, and he helped me with the top surgery, which was all I really needed to have at the time. He knew I was HIV positive, and that wasn't an issue for him. So that was nice that I found that, but I guess the sense of calm didn't come for a long time after that, because it takes a lot of effort to get people on board with where you are, what you're presenting yourself as. It doesn't just happen instantly, as I think some of us would like it to happen.
So, it was very long, gradual. I remember walking into the men's locker room for the first time in 15, 20 years, and it was jaw-dropping for me. Yeah, penises swinging around!