Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Joyful Note About GMHC's Annual Holiday Dinner

On Friday, December 16, GMHC hosted the annual holiday dinner and gift give-a-way to about 500 clients.  It was a festive and beautiful evening.  Our Chef, Wilson Rodriguez, received the following e-mail from a client who attended the dinner:

"Dear Wilson,

"I left your dining room last Friday on cloud 9.  I have difficulty believing anybody cares for me but the amount of caring I received from all your wonderful regular crew and the volunteers for the evening was incredible.  Together, you all gave us another wonderful dinner, like the one for Thanksgiving. (I had planned on writing to you then to say THANKS, but I'm doing it now!)

"It's as if you thought of everything for our comfort.  I notice the little things in life,  like the decorative napkins already on the tables.To the egg nog, who would have thought that would be available to us. It's my favorite beverage! 

"Serving the hors d'oeuvres on the line makes good sense and gets the whole thing started.  I had the hen, perfectly glazed & so tasty. That evening I didn't even mind the carrots, among the vegetable medley.

"Your kitchen is as famous now as it was at 24th Street for the amazing soups you create each day.  Hiding the spinach in the pumpkin soup went down a treat, as I'm not really a fan of spinach either.

"With all those vegetables out of the way...dessert for me is always the best part of the meal.  And you did not disappoint! In fact I want to say that it is very noticeable that since the move to 33 Street, the desserts have become more experimental, elaborate, tasty and attractive to the eye.  Well done!

"The meals are very important to me and I do really appreciate them and all the effort you put into the different daily menu. I also though want to point out that an equally large part of the whole experience of eating at GMHC is the welcoming and friendly attitude of all the staff & volunteers.  They are not just "doing things" for me,  you can actually feel that they want to be there, doing for us all.

"The coat check also  adds comfort to the experience.  And I was impressed by the one way flow of the arriving and leaving system. I learned about it when I went to get the gift bag without my jacket.  I was told I could only get a bag when leaving...through the back stairs. All very orderly.

"It was all a jolly good show!

"Wishing you and yours a blessed holiday season and good health in the New Year.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The SOMWA Foundation Hosts Annual Holiday Party for Families Affected by HIV/AIDS

On Monday, December 19, Shacazia Brown, Founder of the SOMWA (Survivors of Mothers with AIDS) Foundation hosted GMHC's Women’s Care, Prevention and Support Services (WCPSS) family holiday party for a third year.  Shacazia founded SOMWA (pronounced "someway") a few years ago in honor of her mother who died of AIDS 15 years ago. She approached GMHC in 2009 about wanting to host the holiday party for families affected by HIV/AIDS.  Her arrival at GMHC came at miraculously pivotal time when funding for some of the women's programming had been cut.  At the first party, Shacazia was able secure a venue, food, thousands of dollars worth of toys and electronics, guest DJs and much more.  She even got a weekend trip sponsored for an HIV-positive mother and her daughter to Florida. The experience was truly mesmorizing.

Three years later, Shacazia's inspiring work remains consistent.  At this holiday party, there were over 110 children and 80 parents.   There were over 60-70 volunteers who helped during the party and distributed gifts. Below are some of the highlights:
  • A couple came to the agency a couple of weeks ago for the first time. One of their needs was a new wheel chair for their six-year-old son.  This was provided for the little boy along with a Wii game.
  • One young girl’s birthday was also on the same day as the party.  A new bike and other toys were provided for her.
  • Hundreds of toys and electronics, worth tens of thousands of dollars, were provided for the children of all ages.  Teenagers were given gift cards valued at $25 to 50 dollars and MP3 players.
  • Cash and toys were given out during the dance contests.
  • Project Sunshine donated an electronic keyboard with stand which was raffled off to teenagers.  Also raffled were DVD players, a CD / AM and FM music system,  IPod clock radios, and 3-in-1 headphones.
  • Delicious dinner, dessert and snacks were donated by “Taste of Seafood” restaurant.
  • ShereĆ© Whitfield, of Bravo TV’s “Real Housewives of Atlanta” visited with the families.
  • Yandy, cast member of VH1 “Love & Hip Hop” also visited.       SpongeBob SquarePants even stopped by. 
  • DJ Lady Wells and DJ Pauze provided great dance music.
  • A quilt was made by the mothers in WCPSS that was given to Shacazia along with a beautiful poem about her being an angel in our lives.
AND….On Mother’s Day in May 2012, 70-80 mothers will again be treated to a day cruise on the Circle Line.

Our collective thanks to Shacazia (NY1’s recent “New Yorker of the Week”), her volunteers, the donors of the toys, electronics and food, the celebrities and DJs, WCPSS staff, Senior Managers and Directors, our Facilities Department and the cleaning crew, and everyone who helped and was supportive.  This party was truly a miracle on West 33rd Street.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Transpeople: Don't Just Dance, Start a Movement!

By Jayne Henson

Why would anyone want to be transgender? As my granddad would say, "there's no future in it." This statement has been supported in the past by media portrayals of transgender people as sexual deviants, tragic jokes, or lives that ends in violence and definitely not success. With these kinds of images being all that one sees, it is easy to understand why many trans people seek to transition, pass, and "go stealth" as quickly as possible.

I myself remember tears in my mother's eyes as I told her that her son was really her daughter, after which she replied with a string of reasons why this "could not be," as well as her fears for my safety. The certainty in my mother's mind that my life as a trans woman was doomed to tragedy was asserted when I told her that I would be moving to New York City to pursue a career in HIV prevention, to which she replied, "I might as well be shipping you off to Afghanistan." Now, part of this statement could be the result of living in rural Kansas for all of her (and my) life, but what I heard echoed in that statement was the societal belief that trans people are not successful or respected.

But is that still true today? I reflected on this as we felt the digital fallout on blogs and message boards across the country, where people responded to ABC's announcement that Chaz Bono would be a contestant on Dancing with the Stars. Here we had a very visibly out, transsexual man whose family ties to pop icon Cher caused his transition to be thrust into the spotlight. This media onslaught landed him an Oprah special and documentary (nominated for three Emmy Awards), numerous book deals, several speaking engagements, and a future reality TV show and painted him as the representative and poster boy for trans people everywhere -- not to mention also bringing him a host of horrible, hateful things said about him in such media outlets as Chelsea Lately and FOX News, as well as countless independent blogs and message boards. It seems that the Internet remains the last bastion of anonymous slander and defamation in our society, especially toward the disenfranchised.

I commend Chaz Bono for his courage to transition in the public eye, thus making society at large confront the issues of gender identity and transsexuality and letting the world know that trans people are part of the fabric of America. Though it came as no surprise to me, I was hurt by the lack of sensitivity and hate displayed so excessively by today's media in response to Chaz's coming out. But this is where my lavishing praise upon Chaz Bono ends, and where I ask, why him? Why is he the face that represents me and my kind to the world? What will Chaz Bono spinning and cha-cha-ing on Dancing with the Stars do for trans people in America, aside from providing more media fodder?

To be clear, Chaz Bono does not speak for me. To me he represents an ideology and rhetoric surrounding trans identities that only serves to further stereotypes that make it easier for conservative-minded cis-gendered people (i.e., people whose gender identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth) to grasp the concept of transsexuality. This ideology is the notion of becoming a man or woman through medical intervention (and a very stereotypical and misogynistic man, at that).

There are several reasons why I find this problematic. For one, it is not accurate. When I decided to transition from male to female, I never felt as though I became a different person. In reality, I felt that now everyone else around me could see and acknowledge the person I always had been. Furthermore, the thought that trans people must exist in two different lifecycles (pre- and post-transition), as opposed to having a linear existence that embraces both our past and our future, is what keeps us from feeling pride in our existence as trans women and men.

This notion of "becoming" through transition is prevalent throughout all of Chaz's endorsed media ("Becoming Chaz" and "Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man") and is an underlying theme that saturates its messages. I am tired of dialogue that insists that I must become a certain ideal of what a woman is, and that someone else gets to decide what that is and when my identity is valid. I'm tired of trying to make the world think trans people are "just like everyone else," because we're not; we're different, and that's awesome! What I want is an ideology that allows us to be proud of our trans identities and be excited about being trans, and value what that means in today's world, instead of viewing trans identities as diseases that need to be cured so that we can become valid.

Trans women have been shown in the media time and time again on Jerry Springer, Law and Order, 20/20, Dirty Sexy Money, 30 Rock, Saturday Night Live, and many other shows. However, almost none of these portrayals is a positive image of what it means to be a trans woman. In fact, 2010 marked a monumental year when trans woman Amanda Simpson was appointed to the presidential cabinet, making her the first out trans woman to serve in the White House. Yet there were no Oprah specials for Amanda, and about the only acknowledgement she got was jokes made about her on The Daily Show.

The fact remains that in our society, the voiceless rarely get to choose who represents them, and too often that responsibility is taken over by the media. Yet in a market that is dominated by ratings, poignant, smart, positive dialogue often takes a back seat to sensationalism and mass appeal. To those of you reading who view trans people as some kind of mystified species seen on National Geographic, I want you to know this: we are more than Jerry Springer specials, cheap jokes, mistakes of nature, sexual fetishes, and abominations. We are strong, powerful men and women. We are everywhere. We are in your office, on the subway, in your high school class, behind you in line at the bank. We are firefighters, pilots, computer programmers, musicians, actors, dancers, authors, reality TV stars, doctors, lawyers, farmers, and even HIV counselors. We face a host of dangers and challenges every day for existing in a world that treats us as less than human and would rather that we just fade away. Yet we do it all in pursuit of what many of you take for granted every day -- a sense of sovereignty over our body, gender, and identity -- and we aren't going to disappear anytime soon.

To my transgender brothers and sisters reading this, I want to say: we have to stop thinking that any representation of us in the media is better than none. We need more than a line in a Lady Gaga song and a jitterbugging child of a gay icon. We need to start making our own voices heard. Grab a mic, write a blog, write a poem or novel, make art, make a scene, hold a protest, fight back, take up space, start a movement! Our future depends on it.
Jayne Henson is HIV counselor and outreach worker in the GMHC Center for HIV Prevention.  Her article was originally published in The Huffington Post on December 5, 2011.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Thanksgiving Story

By Felix Lopez

On November 10, a homeless family was referred to GMHC. The family consisted of a mother and six children. Two of the children were pregnant. The family had lived in a one bedroom apartment until October, when the landlord, aware that the father had died of AIDS in September and fearful that the remaining family members couldn’t afford to pay rent, put the family on the street. The family eventually sought shelter in a church basement, which is where they were living when they were referred to us. Deborah Welch, Assistant Director, and her team immediately went to work to help the family enroll in our Sustainable Living Fund program which provides rental assistance to eligible New York City residents who have symptomatic HIV/AIDS. The Sustainable Living Fund works in partnership with community based organizations that provide services to individuals with HIV/AIDS and their families.

Within five days, Deborah and her team had processed the enrollments and secured the money to pay for a new apartment for the family. On November 15, the family left the church basement they had been occupying and moved into a four-bedroom apartment. The family’s ongoing rent will be paid by the Sustainable Living Fund.

There is a sad note to the story. Earlier today we learned that one of the pregnant daughters has lapsed into a coma and lost her baby.

As a member of the GMHC staff, I am very proud that we were able to help this family get into stable housing, especially with winter around the corner. I am also very proud of the work of the SLF team: Deborah, Theodura, Yesenia, and Elizabeth.


Felix Lopez is the Director of Legal Services at GMHC.