Mental Health Expert Uses His Life to Help Others Navigate HIV and Gender
For many years in the 1970s and '80s, Brian Belovitch lived as a transgender woman in New York City. In 1987 after being diagnosed with HIV, Brian began the process of transitioning back -- and now refers to himself as a cisgender gay male of trans experience. All of this is documented in Brian's new book, Trans Figured: My Journey from Boy to Girl to Woman to Man. We spoke about much of that journey in part 1 of our interview. Here, in part 2, Brian discusses his journey of learning to live with HIV, and how his history as a person with trans experience impacts his work as a mental health provider.
JD Davids: As a mental health provider, when you're working with women, whether cis or trans women, do you feel that your approach is different, having lived as a woman?
Brian Belovitch: Oh, yeah. Not too many people can say they've walked in, existed in both gender experiences as fully as I can. Living as a woman is not easy; I have such tremendous empathy for being a woman in this world. Yeah, just being objectified and looked at as less of a person.
JD: Do you think your gender journey would have been different today?
BB: I was thinking about that today, actually, because I'm going to LA and going to see my old friends from my club days, and they work very closely with RuPaul, and I was thinking if it was today, I would probably be on RuPaul's Drag Race.
I don't know that I would have gone as far as I did with the surgical interventions. I might be like a Charles Busch or Taylor Mac. Not that I would want to be them, but I'm just using them as an example for someone whose gender is just so fluid.
I would hope that, you know, if I was a young Brian and I was coming to New York City with my whole creative drive and ambition, that that's maybe an area that I would go into. And as a gay actor.
I mean, I wanted to act so badly. I transitioned and changed my body into a more acceptable version of gender in order to act playing cisgender female roles. But we still have cis actors playing trans people. And the few trans roles there are, are still strange. Yeah. It's still a struggle.
I just think that we need to go so much further. There's so much more to evolve around the idea of who and what we are as human beings. We're not anywhere near where we need to be around accepting what people are comfortable with, what they present themselves as -- who they are, what they like, or what their gender is, or their sexual orientation is. I would think that today would be a lot easier.
I think the fascinating thing for me now around gender is that, for a lot of people, it's a destination, and there's sort of a finality to it. And for me, it's been more of a journey. And it's been more one of possibility and comfortability. So it's more for me about just finding the place where I can breathe.
I thought I could as a trans person, which I was never really able to do during that time in history. I never fit in in the straight world, I never fit in in the gay world.
For the first 10 years of being HIV positive, you know, I was pretty depressed. But I didn't have any [HIV-related] infections. My T cells were going down, but I never had below 1,000 T cells or 900, I never went below that 900 or 800 level. So maybe I was lightly dusted or lightly sprinkled, I don't know.
Maybe no drinking, no drugs, and no smoking, maybe that contributed to my being able to survive for the medications. But, you know, it was a really hard time to think of a life for yourself. It was hard to plan for the future, because you really didn't know what your future was going to bring.
I wish I could get those 10 years back. You know, I think I've more than made up for it now with all of the things that I've been able to do. But back then, I'd love to have those 10 years back that I was wallowing around in like, "What's going to happen?" as many of us were not making it, and then seeing my friends and loved ones and my peers, my age group, decimated.
JD: When you were writing the book, and you were recalling these harsh things that you've gone through, how did you take care of yourself?
BB: Well, being a mental health professional, one of the things I learned early on was self-care. You can't help someone else if you're a psychological mess, or if you're not even taking care of your basic needs. So for me, I was very gentle with myself. I set a goal every day to just write one page. I gave myself a lot of permission to just write it as it came, and that was really helpful.
And I have tremendous support, which a lot of people don't have. I have a loving husband of 16 years and great friends. So, that's important.
A lot of my life, especially being someone with HIV, is finding balance and also recognizing my own limits.
The other thing I had to do for the book was say no to a lot of people. As great as it is to be invited to things or "Come along and do this," that would have prevented me from accomplishing what was really important to me, which was finishing the book. So I had to carve out space and set boundaries.
In the back of my mind, I've always known that at some point, I was going to write a book. If you asked me 10 or 20 years ago what I thought my life would be like, I would never imagine it's anything like it is today. So it's surprising to be where I am at this point in my life.
I did try to write it many years ago, in the late '80s, early '90s. And no one wanted to hear anything about anything to do with transgender, or any kind of otherness; they didn't want to hear anything about that. So I got a very negative reaction. And I kind of put that on the back shelf.
I did write a play about my experience in 2000, which was even then somewhat daring, the subject matter, because I was met with a lot of resistance when I did that then, but now it's completely different.
It's not just about surviving. It's about making a good life for yourself, if you can, and that's different for everybody. When I compare myself with myself, even the last 10 years…..
I entered graduate school at 60. And I get straight A's. I want to just be able to set out to do whatever I want to do. I'm of retirement age, which is a plan B. It's a master's program in mental health counseling.
I would have never imagined that my life would have turned out the way it has, so many twists and turns and changes. Life is about change anyway, but drastic change, so extravagant!
I just want to leave something, like breadcrumbs. I want to leave something for someone else to look at and say, "Wow, look at that. You know, that guy really struggled and really went through it, and survived and flourished."
Read the first part of our interview with Brian Belovitch, where he shares details of his journey through HIV and his trans experience.