Achim Jeremiah Howard is many things. He is a trans advocate, mentor, construction worker, minister at Bethel Christian Church, and music lover. Since learning that he is living with HIV in 2010, Achim has become incredibly active in his community as a mentor to other trans men. Three years ago, he founded DC Trans Men Rising, Inc, to create a safe space to talk about HIV and other issues.
I was privileged to speak with Achim to learn more about his motivations, experiences, and work with DC Trans Rising.
How did you get engaged as an advocate and mentor?
One thing that I noticed in my community as a trans man is that trans men do not talk about HIV. It's a taboo. But, after being diagnosed with HIV, when I started to get educated about HIV, I wanted to change that. I wanted to help facilitate those conversations. As a mentor, I give people suggestions on what they can do to protect themselves with HIV or how to live well with HIV. And, thank god for PEP and PrEP now; I am trying to educate myself more about that so I can incorporate PEP and PrEP education into our support groups.
All my life, I always knew I was a caregiver but didn't know how far it went. It took me contracting HIV to be there for others even more. Each day that I live is a learning process, every day I am learning something new.
Can you tell me more about how DC Trans Rising came about?
Trans Men Rising came about when I saw a need for a place for trans men to come and get support. I found that trans men had always been tied in with other people or trans women and felt that we needed to create our own space. At Trans Men Rising, we are focused on trans men of color, but our group is very diverse, which is good. We talk about HIV, survival skills, life -- things that we encounter as trans men.
I'm three years in with Trans Men Rising, and right now everything I do is voluntary, but I am trying to turn it into a nonprofit. It's time that start taking it to another level as far as creating job spaces and support space.
The upcoming webinar that you are in is about creating a trans affirming workplace. Can you talk about how it was for you to transition at work?
When my construction company hired me, they thought they were hiring a dominant, lesbian, female. But when I started working there, I took control and groomed my coworkers to respect me as an individual. I told them to call me Howard (my last name). I instructed people that my pronouns were male and I make sure to reinforce that. Currently I have a sticker on my card hat identifying my pronouns.
I'm not saying that it was easy because it was hard. A year in, when I began my transition and I started growing a beard and my face was full of hair I got some looks and questions. Every time that someone tried to say shit to me, I corrected them and said no, my pronouns are male. It was a learning process because I am the first and only trans person open about my identity on that site, within my company, and in my union hall.
What would you tell someone about being out at work?
Be confident in who you are and don't be afraid to be who you are. People are only going to respect you if you respect yourself and know who you are as an individual. Also, you have to know your rights as a human being and trans person. Places may say they are equal opportunity employers and don't discriminate, but you need to be prepared.
What advice would you give to an employer to be trans-affirming?
First of all, with introductions it is important to ask each employee how do you want to be identified and what are your pronouns. When you say that in the beginning it speaks volumes. It says you are affirming and accepting of trans people.
It is also important to take the time to get informed. Allow yourself to be corrected when you make mistakes -- it is all about respect. It is important to have a dialogue and increase your own awareness of these issues.
What is something that employers should do to be trans-affirming that may not be on their radar?
Employers should provide health insurance that includes coverage for trans-specific health care. This year, I just had my top surgery, and I ran into some trouble with my union insurance. The union insurance tried to deny me coverage for my surgery. But there's a law in DC that trans-specific surgeries must be covered. I worked with a lawyer through Whitman Walker Health to appeal this decision. Not even 30 days later, I received a letter saying they granted me coverage for my surgery.
What motivates you on your most challenging days?
My drive is to help other people. I get my blessings through other people by blessing people. People have helped me so I have to give back. My drive is to see people live healthier, more empowered lives. I want to support people to be well rounded, to know who they are, and to do things for themselves.
It hurts me when someone, especially when a trans individual, commits suicide, because they don't have support or have been bullied in school. I have been bullied and know how it feels to be different. I am a living witness that God loves all of his kids, it doesn't matter who you are or what walk of life you come from. That inner spirit pushes me so I can help others. I live to help others and always will.
Also, there are two people in my biological family who truly accept me: my aunt Mary and my grandmother. I understand that I have their support. To hear my aunt call me nephew the first time made my heart just for joy because that is what I longed for. My aunt has been a strong force in my transition and I really appreciate her. And my grandmother who always worked, empowered and paved the way.
Thank you so much for taking the time, Achim! We can't wait for the upcoming webinar on February 23!
Register for the upcoming webinar, Best Practices: Creating a Transgender-Affirming Organization, to learn more!
Join us on February 23 at 1pm ET to learn practical ways to make your organization affirming to transgender people, using a social justice framework and drawing on sources from across the social science, policy and advocacy, and community organizing arenas. This webinar is intended for staff at HIV-focused and social justice organizations who want to understand and better serve people who are transgender and gender expansive in our communities.
Sarah Hashmall is communications manager at AIDS United.