Creating Myself: Interview with Cecilia Chung
by Paul Shimazaki, from the
June 2000 Newsletter
When did you first test HIV+?
I tested at the end of summer, 1993.
Why did you get tested?
Two reasons: first of all, as a peer educator at Asian AIDS
Project, I wanted to set an example. Second, I was a substance
user and a sex worker. I knew I was at risk because I did
not practice safer sex and I had shared syringes.
What was your reaction to testing
Everything was surreal, my mind was blank. I was in shock
for the rest of the day. Luckily, two friends went to the
test site with me. It took hours before I became flooded with
emotions and broke down and cried.
What was your life like at the time?
I had just began my transition in becoming a woman. I had
faced rejection from my family and I was homeless. My father
is a typical Chinese male. It was a difficult concept for
him to deal with: a son as a homosexual, a son going thorough
the changes to become a woman. I was devastated because of
the lack of support from my family. It was difficult to talk
about HIV with anybody. I felt lonely. I was always the black
sheep of the family before.
How has your life changed since testing
Life did not change right away. For a few years I guess you
could call it an adjustment and moderation period. I tried
to get a real job. My drug use escalated at that time. I couldn't
keep my job and ended up on the streets again as a sex worker,
Then I suffered a trauma in 1995. I was kidnapped by two
men who tried to rape me. In the process I was stabbed. I
realized how precious my life really was. I didn't want to
die and decided to change the way I live.
I went into a drug treatment program. It removed me from
the Tenderloin and allowed me to stay clean and sober. I began
to discover what Cecilia is about. Besides my defects, I discovered
I am quite a lovable person. That was the biggest discovery
I started taking care of my health, seeing a doctor regularly.
I was put on one of the cocktails (drug combinations). I realized
I can't take myself for granted. How much work I put into
myself is how much result I'll get back.
You've dealt with other major life issues besides HIV --
gender identity and addiction. Do find them all interrelated?
Yeah. Growing up was confusing for me. Going through my transition,
I had low self-esteem. Drug use was an escape. My drug use
escalated. I didn't have family support or many friends. I
felt singled out. I was not only going through one process.
Several were going on at the same time, woven together. Quitting
drugs was the first step to stopping that vicious cycle. From
that point on I had a lot of things I had to learn and relearn-basic
life skills, learning how to be myself.
When did you first identify as transgender?
I've always felt I was trapped in the wrong body. In 1992
I decided to go ahead with the transition. I was 27 years
Can you talk about your transition
from male to female?
In 1992, my friend asked me to join him dressing up and going
to a Tenderloin bar called the Motherlode. It wasn't my first
time -- Halloween and costume parties. But it was the first
time I went to a public place. I found the answer to all my
confusion. I felt comfortable with myself and with other people.
That's when I started my transition.
I didn't know much about hormone therapy or where to get
it, make-up or how to dress. I learned make-up and wearing
women's clothes from other transgenders. I started using black
market hormones. It wasn't until I went into a drug program
that I started getting prescription hormones.
My body went through quite a bit of changes: breasts, softer
skin, features became softer also. My whole appearance became
very feminine. With femininity came a weight problem. Drugs
was my only means at the time to control weight. Speed became
my primary drug.
How is HIV viewed in the transgender
Still a very hush hush subject. Everybody still seems to be
following a code of silence.
What response have you gotten as an
outspoken HIV+ transgender person?
I've been quite active with advocacy, workshops and speaking,
in addressing HIV and transgender issues. Ironically, the
transgender community itself doesn't have much opportunity
to attend workshops I've participated in. I believe I've gotten
a stronger response form the non-transgender folks.
The transgender community itself still has a lot of barriers
to overcome: lack of unity. We are very divided. In most cases,
those who consider themselves passable would not associate
with the rest. The community feeds on a lot of envy, jealousy
and insecurities. The Tenderloin and prison is their habitat.
They feel uncomfortable taking a regular job and lack confidence
to try or take chances.
I take issue with the word "transgender". It's
used for crossdressers, drag queens, transexuals. It blurs
the definition. If they were separate words, it'd be easier
to find out where you fit in. To find your identity. By the
way, this is the first year "transgender" was included
in the dictionary.
How's your health these days?
My health has never been better. I've been taking the triple
combination since March of last year. I've switched to a new
combination. My viral load is undetectable. My T-cell level
is relatively high. Partly I attribute this to working out
in the gym since May of this year.
What are your plans for the future?
Today I have a good relationship with my mother. First of
all, I'd like to find a full-time job. I feel well enough
mentally and physically. I like to feel productive. April
and May I'm going to Thailand to have a complete operation,
thanks to the financial support of my mother.
I could have never thought it'd be so easy to get my mother's
relationship back. All it took was for me to take responsibility
for my own life. And I'm willing to face new challenges --
that includes dating.
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