Transformed by HIV/AIDS

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #104, Winter 2004.

by Shirley Boughton

My efforts to control and suppress my transgender urges failed in a spectacular way. In 1983, in a moment of weakness, I lost control and acted out on my transgender urges by dressing as a woman and engaging in sex with a man. This was the only way, I thought, that I could be affirmed as a woman.

Following this incident, I knew my efforts at control and suppression would not work. I finally got up the nerve to bring my wife in on my deep secret, and together we sought professional help. I still kept the fact of the sexual encounter from her, hoping I had avoided being infected by a sexually transmitted disease. The AIDS virus had not yet been identified; AIDS was called Gay Related Immune Deficiency, or GRID. I wasn?t gay, so I didn?t think I was at risk.
I did not escape. In August, 1988, the Air Force Reserve tested me for the presence of HIV. I received the positive diagnosis on September 11, 1988. My immune system was already seriously compromised, with a CD4 count down to 320 T-Cells per milliliter of blood.

I considered suicide. I thought my life was over?that my wife would leave me, I wouldn?t live to see my grandchildren, my life was a failure, I was a disappointment in the eyes of God. I was ashamed of who I was and what I had done. On the positive side, I thought, at least my demons would die with me.
My expectations could not have been further from the truth. My wife stuck by my side. Our marriage bond grew stronger. I continued to be at least moderately successful in both my military and civil service careers. But?and perhaps most importantly?I experienced a spiritual awakening and renewal.
Facing the near certainty of death caused me to reflect on what was really important in life. I thought again on the purpose of my life. I took advantage of the few years of respite provided by AZT, which slowed the progression of the virus, to study my faith and how I was to act on that faith. This ultimately led me to acquire a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religious Studies and become ordained as a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church in February 1994?even as I simultaneously slipped into full-blown AIDS. My ministry focused on transforming my wounds into tools to guide people into Christian action in behalf of social justice and helping couples to form more solid bonds based on honest and open communication. At first, though, I kept both my HIV status and my transgender nature secret from the public.

I began to see the need to help put a face to AIDS?my face?in order to help others and myself and to dispel the myths surrounding this disease. As I allowed myself to accept the fact of my infection and to move out of the closet of denial by openly taking ownership of my HIV-positive status, I became more and more involved as an AIDS activist. For example, I became president of the board of directors for our local AIDS services organization. I became active in our area Ryan White consortium and on the Florida AIDS Community Planning Group as an advocate for a more equitable distribution of limited Federal funding. I became a district leader for the Florida AIDS Action Council and lobbied members of the state legislature for additional needed resources. I became a certified instructor of the AIDS Survival Kit to help empower people in Northwest Florida who are living with HIV and AIDS. I became a member of the Heart-song Gulf Coast team.

As long as I was dying from AIDS,
my transgender demons were quiet. I remained closeted concerning my transsexual nature. In June 1996, the FDA approved the triple drug combination
(or AIDS cocktail) to combat HIV. I really prefer martinis! My system responded well. The combination of AZT, 3TC and Crixivan quickly reduced the virus in my bloodstream to undetectable levels. My immune system began a slow return to normal.

As my health improved I experienced a resurgence of transgender urges and fantasies. I was also experiencing wasting syndrome?I continued to lose muscle mass at an unacceptable rate. Apparently, my immune system needed to steal the protein from my muscles in order to build new immune cells. A blood test revealed that my testosterone level was abnormally low, which could have been contributing to the muscle-wasting problem. I also thought low testosterone might be the cause of my transsexual feelings.
Testosterone replacement therapy helped overcome the wasting problem, but it also made me feel more aggressive and caused me to act more impulsively as a female! To make matters worse, I was using a double dose of testosterone. I became depressed and was referred for professional mental health therapy. I couldn?t understand what was happening to me. Who was I? What was I? I needed to know the true extent and depth of my sexual and gender identity confusion?but I could not and would not act out on my urges as I had in the past.

Unfortunately, the depression resulting from continued attempts to suppress my transsexual urges did result in behavior that led to legal problems, the loss of my job, and the loss of many friends.
For the past several years, I have worked hard through therapy and study to find out what causes a person to be transgendered?what caused me to be this way?and, more, what it means to be transgendered. What I have discovered by finally, honestly embracing my in-born nature is that transgenderism is at the fundamental core of who I am as a human person. My transgenderism was biologically determined. It was not a choice. It defines and shapes the way in which I relate to God and to others. It is the lens through which I view the world and all creation.

I have come to believe transgenderism is a special gift of the Holy Spirit, a gift which puts a lie to the gender boxes constructed by our patriarchal culture, a construct that serves to oppress both men and women. It is a gift not always welcomed because it threatens the established order.

I am now open about being a transsexual person. My wife and I now participate as a couple in transgender panels for college classes in Northwest Florida at both the undergraduate and graduate level to bring students to a better understanding of gender diversity. We have even made an educational videotape on transgender-related issues for couples; it is being used by universities throughout South Florida. I currently serve as President of the Emerald Coast Chapter of the Panhandle Transgender Alliance and represent Northwest Florida and the Florida transgender community on the Florida HIV/AIDS Community Planning Group. We are now transgender as well as HIV/AIDS activists.

By simply embracing whom I am?by simply coming out proudly as a transgendered soul living with AIDS?I become a sacrament, a sign of an inclusive and loving Creator. By simply being, I am helping to bring liberty to persons imprisoned by the arbitrary and rigid gender constraints imposed by the power elite of our society. By simply existing openly as a transgendered person, I am helping to bring sight to those who have been to blind to the rich diversity of God?s creation.

I was knit in my mother?s womb to be exactly who I am. I am indeed wonderfully made. I am a child of God! I really don?t need to do anything, but by being authentic to the way God created me, I can help bring healing to our deeply divided planet.

Each life is different. Each of us has been differently gifted. Each of us has been afflicted by wounds and scars as we have journeyed through life. Each of us can transform our woundedness to serve the greater good of humanity.