By Andy Armano
This series focuses on individuals who give to our community and make a positive impact on the lives of others. Often it is through our personal adversities that we discover who we are and transform the challenges into strength.
Jen has been a longtime trans and HIV advocate and a public health policy consultant and strategist. He serves on the board for AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) Advocacy Association, writing regularly for its blog.
Tell me a little about the roots of your trans and HIV advocacy.
HIV has always been in my life to some degree or another. When I was younger, I hung out in queer circles, shared housing while homeless, and I saw people get sick, share food, and struggle to survive with me. I was always deeply moved when I heard my peers talk with heart about the issues they faced and how they were choosing to survive in the moment. Many of those issues were similar to my own. When I was 18 I was diagnosed with HIV. I have also always loved public policy, so it was natural for me to move into the public health space. My passion is to help my community realize the truth that, for better or worse, government policy is where the will of the electorate is realized.
Turning childhood trauma into strength.
For me, traumatic events didn’t make me who I am. Rather, they helped me understand who I wanted to be. These traumas strip away some of the trappings that we like to dress ourselves up in to get through life. It’s not to say, “Oh great! this happened for a reason.” It’s more a matter of what I’ve chosen to do with it.
When those challenges happen so young, we don’t have the emotional and intellectual capability to really process those events. When did you start looking at those issues, how did they affect you, and how did you heal and overcome those challenges?
I think I started to understand that it was damaging to me when I was about 15 years old. I had a younger brother and he died when he was 24. That was really hard for me. He was 13 months younger than me and I spent the vast majority of my childhood raising him. That sense of needing to take care of him was a big, big piece for shaping who I am and how I view the world. I tried to protect him from the things that were happening to me, but I didn’t realize until many years later that because of how my family dynamics worked, he was never going to face the level of pain that I faced. That realization built up a certain level of resentment from me to him for quite some time.
I recall very distinctly telling my father after he got custody of my younger brother about things that happened to me. That I was raped repeatedly for several years. The conversation escalated into an argument. I was shouting, my father was shouting at me, and it was very heated. Then my younger brother called me a liar and I punched him square in the nose.
I realized precisely how angry I was. I was already self-destructive by the time, but realizing that the anger and self-destructive behavior were intimately tied was pivotal to my own personal growth. I chose to work through my anger.
I could see a thread between taking care of your brother and the work that you do now. Do you feel there’s a tie there?
There’s absolutely a tie. One of the things I’ve had to develop for myself is working to let go of my sense of needing to have saved my younger brother. That drive has affected every interaction and relationship I’ve had. It took me a long time to let go of needing to save my younger brother. I have come to a point where I understand it is not my job to save other people. My job in this life is to make sure that, as I find tools that help me, I am sharing them so other people can save themselves. I can’t force anybody to pick the tools up. I can just say “this is what I learned, if it’s useful to you, I hope you’re able to use it to better your life.”
I can see how your public health work aligns with your goal of making tools available to others.
When I talk about health policy and health equity, I’m talking about extending tools that improve people’s quality of life. When we talk about equal access to care in a meaningful manner, we are talking about extending support that improves people’s ability to be economically mobile and to self-actualize their ideals and dreams.
I find in my advocacy around transgender health policy that this is really important. Despite being trans identified, I don’t necessarily reflect the identity of the population experiencing the most disparate impacts of an unjust society. I may share experience, but the way the world is built today I have a greater opportunity to move past those things and still achieve success. So, I’m left with having to balance my ideals and ethics with having a certain…platform.
Being aware of that, I’m left with the responsibility to support and amplify the voices and stories of black trans women, black women, and other more marginalized and highly impacted populations rather than pushing through my own narrative. Making space, “saving seats” at the table as it were, to ensure their stories are first.
That’s where this intersection of my work on HIV and trans health occurs. Both areas of health are important separately and together they’re the center of today’s epidemic.
Would you call yourself an activist?
Oh, that word makes me uncomfortable. I often refer to myself as an advocate. I think the reason “activist” makes me uncomfortable is because I understand activists as individuals who are willing to put themselves at extraordinary risk. I think of ACT-UP, for example. Much of that risk is emotional and centers on telling one’s own story.
I am very careful about the risks I take and there are risks that are unacceptable to me. Security is something that I value highly. You might even say that’s an impact of my childhood trauma. I’m not sure that I would call myself an activist. I would not shun the label should someone assign it to me, but I’m precise in saying that I find myself advocating for people I identify with and seeking to amplify their voices rather than trying to instill a sense of my own story or values on others.
You faced so many challenges that limited your ability to excel academically in school even though you are incredibly intelligent. How did you develop that confidence that I see in you today?
I like to joke very frequently that I am too stubborn or too stupid to take no for an answer. I didn’t graduate high school, I have a GED, but no college degree; I am self-educated. The more I learn the more I feel confident in my knowledge. The more work that I do the more work I am offered. Truthfully, I’m not always confident in the work that I’m doing. I double check myself all the time. I triple check myself. There are confidants and colleagues that I rely on to bounce ideas off of, to double check my work, and I’ve had the cheerleading support of my wife for 12 years.