Two best friends tell Jeff Berry about their unique journeys to wellness
Jeff Berry
By Jeff Berry @paeditor

Sam Lenser first found out about TPAN and its annual Ride for AIDS Chicago separately, when a friend of a friend had a heroin addiction and was at extremely high risk for overdosing. Sam went to TPAN, the Chicago AIDS service organization that publishes POSITIVELY AWARE, for Narcan (naloxone), the injection that reverses the overdose. “She’s okay,” says Sam of the friend. “I utilized you guys for that resource, which is phenomenal and super accessible.”

Sam, 32, who identifies as genderqueer trans masc and prefers the pronouns they/them/their, learned about the Ride from one of Sam’s best friends, Piper, who wanted them to crew.

“I remember last year crewing and everyone else had gone to bed, because they’d ridden a hundred miles, and I was up at nine o’clock at night by myself just walking around the camp,” says Sam. “I had a really deep moment where I realized why it’s so upbeat, and why it’s such a tight-knit community, because the issue is so serious, and so devastating—the cause that we’re working towards. At that point I decided I really wanted to start riding, and started riding my bike after that.”

Sam came out as trans at the age of 15, but then went back in the closet for 12 years after meeting a guy who "wanted to do the hetero-normative, wifey thing." Sam says it wasn’t sustainable, and after the relationship ended moved from the Chicago suburbs into the city.

“The more I was exposed to queer culture, and reminded of it, the more I started to engage in it again, and realized what path I was on. I started really presenting masc—masculine—for a while. Then in 2015 on Halloween, I went as a male character, and I really couldn’t figure out whether I was male or female, and I thought, ‘Wow, this feels like I’m not in costume for the first time in a long time.’ ”

Since then Sam says, “I came out, got top surgery—gender-affirming surgery—in January of this year, and I’ve gotten a lot more involved in the queer community and community organizing.”

Sam started hooking up and engaging in “affirming casual sex” even before the surgery. “It’s my personal experience and I think a shared experience among a lot of trans folks, and why we run a higher risk too, for HIV, is seeking out sex to affirm our gender. So if I hook up with a gay male, if I hook up with someone who sees me more genuinely and can affirm [my identity through sex]—that’s an affirming component. Because we’re more sensitive and newer to engaging in different dating pools, whether it be the lesbian community, or the gay male community, there are a lot of educational aspects, and vulnerability, so unprotected sex is a lot more common with us.”

Sam, who is HIV-negative, started taking PrEP about a year ago. Through getting involved in the trans masculine community in Chicago, Sam realized the risk factors for HIV are so much higher, and learned about PrEP from best friend Lee Dewey, who is HIV-positive. Say Sam, “I think a lot of trans masc folks are unaware of the social risk factors, but also that T [testosterone] causes atrophy in [their] walls, so tearing is more probable [making them more vulnerable to HIV]. Some doctors aren’t aware of that too.”

The more I was exposed to queer culture, and reminded of it, the more I started to engage in it again, and realized what path I was on.

Sam Lenser

Sam and Lee are the two co-organizers of CommunityCaveChicago, which Lee describes as “a community group for anyone assigned female at birth and identifies as anything other than cisgender.” The group meets regularly at Center on Halsted in Chicago, and recently changed its name from ManCaveChicago to intentionally be more inclusive of allies and other populations in some of their programs. Lee, 34, identifies as gender non-conforming trans, and tested positive for HIV about two years ago.

“I tested regularly every three to six months since my early 20s. I’d test in a variety of locations, every time somebody showed up with free testing I would test. The platform of my advocacy is around the fact that nobody ever suggested Truvada for PrEP to me, even though I was testing regularly at a wide variety of locations and very open about my sex life, and that it involved people of different genders, and there were sometimes occasional risks where condoms didn’t get used, so I was at risk and having sex with gay men. It’s unfortunate that nobody ever brought up PrEP to me.”

Lee was waiting to see their doctor and saw a pamphlet for PrEP, and realized it was available and probably free. “I’d also been experiencing some weird flu symptoms, and [my doctor] was suspicious that I was poz, newly exposed, and she was correct. I was still testing negative on the quick test, but she did a full blood panel and it came back positive. I’d kind of heard of Truvada, but I didn’t realize that it was accessible, and that I could afford it, so the day that I learned that I could actually qualify for this thing that I thought I was the perfect candidate for, I found out that it was too late.”

Lee now advocates to make sure that the same thing doesn’t happen to anyone else.

“I’m surprised because I tested at such a variety of locations, and talked about HIV and AIDS activism, and talked about testing. I was already an ally. I wish I’d done my homework better.”

Lee says their provider was sort of surprised at the same time that Lee didn’t realize how accessible it was, and she’d been their doctor for a while, so it was sort of like a light bulb went off for both of them—“this is so preventable.”

’We all need to think about how we can do better as a community to take care of each other and recognize that while we have a lot of different backgrounds and unique characters, we all experience a lot of the same things in a lot of the same ways.

Lee Dewey

“I talked to her about it not being recommended, and she’d taken that forward and probably does at least mention it [now]. It’s kind of tricky, because do you push it on people when they’re talking about it? But they talk about safer sex practices, they talk about condoms, why not also talk about PrEP? I feel like they do to some populations, and then not to others, and it seems like an obvious and logical leap—but some people didn’t see the gap,” says Lee.

Sam works with SWOP (Sex Workers Outreach Project) Chicago as a volunteer performing outreach for those who engage with sex work on the street level. “SWOP is an incredible organization for community building among sex workers, [providing] primarily harm reduction and resources,” says Sam. “It can be really hard to provide resources for harm reduction for sex workers legally if you’re not with an organization, because that can be interpreted as pimping. SWOP does street outreach once a week on [Chicago’s] West Side, and I’m looking to start up street outreach in [the] Rogers Park [neighborhood], so that’s something that’s in the works. They do legal clinics which I’ve helped out with, providing legal advocacy for a more vulnerable population.”

Sam, who engages in sex work and is a strong proponent of harm reduction, says there is a legal line that you have to be careful of when talking to other sex workers. “I can’t give advice or provide resources. I can talk about my experience, so I share safety tips and ways to keep themselves safe. Essentially it’s folks who engage with sex work on the street level. I’m privileged financially where I don’t need to do that, so it’s needle exchanges, hygiene kits, condoms and prophylactics in general, and food, drinks, and a place where essentially sex workers can meet and connect.”

Sam says that as far as legal risks with sex work they’re perceived as being victims of human trafficking, “because really all the laws around sex work are ‘sex is shameful, sex is bad, we’re shutting sex down as it comes up.’ So obviously I wouldn’t, of my own agency, seek out affirming sex; I would be trafficked by a pimp, because why would I possibly want to? So if you are providing resources, then you are that pimp. I get slapped on the wrist because I’m the sad victim, I don’t have agency. But if I’m the person providing resources, then I am the human trafficker. That’s a hell of a felony. So I make it very clear I can only speak to my personal experience, so, ‘I use these apps, though I cannot tell you to use those apps.’”

Since Sam’s top surgery last year, their doctor gave the green light in January to begin riding again, so Sam started training for Ride for AIDS Chicago, which this year takes place July 8–9. [As this issue of Positively Aware went to press, Sam had to pull back from this year’s Ride due to health reasons not related to the surgery, but will continue to support the Ride.]

“Last year when I was helping for training was the first time I really got on a bike,” says Sam. “I looked a little ridiculous showing up in an Uber to help people at 6 a.m. when they were going to ride 60 miles doing training rides. When that was all done in July when the Ride wrapped up, I started riding to work and back, and then quit my job and started doing bike order stuff. So all through winter until my surgery I was riding for a living. I did the math, and you can actually figure out how many miles you can do a marathon for, and I could actually do 200 miles in a weekend. So that was last October, and I was like, ‘Okay, cool!’”

Between training, working, and community organizing, Sam keeps pretty busy, and is grateful for the community that has been so welcoming and accepting when Sam first came out.

“There are different struggles that each generation has to face, and I think that this is a big one that the LGBTQ community is coming up towards, just advocating for the trans struggle in general. I’ve felt overwhelmingly included and welcomed in the gay male community—it was a total shock to me. I feel that there is a lot to gain from learning the different perspectives that we have. Like at that moment when I realized the tremendous history that I luckily missed out on, but there is a lot of road ahead, and [we share] similar struggles.”

Lee agrees that we have our work cut out for us. “The community at large...a lot of older, white gay men, don’t know anything about trans and non-binary people. Maybe there has been some buy-in with transmen, because we have Buck Angel to look at in porn. He is sort of a bridge; he’s not the end goal. Understanding that there are trans people that are masculine, that are binary, that look and act and screw just like gay men, but that also there is this larger community of non-binary and genderqueer people that were either assigned male or assigned female at birth [who] have sex with all kinds of people in all kinds of ways, [and] that we’re also at risk.

“We all need to think about how we can do better as a community to take care of each other and recognize that while we have a lot of different backgrounds and unique characters, we all experience a lot of the same things in a lot of the same ways, and have a lot of the same riskiness. Just sort of opening the mind so that when you think about HIV not just thinking about gay men. Or not just thinking about black transwomen, who absolutely need to be a focus…black transwomen are at one of the highest risks. But there’s also the forgotten population, and we often need that conversation to start because we need providers to see us as being at risk. Even when we’re telling them we’re at risk often they don’t hear it, and they won’t test, or they won’t suggest, or they won’t prescribe, because we haven’t really caught up.”

Lee points out that we don’t need anybody else’s spotlight, because the communities that are in focus need to remain in focus, but we have enough room to add more.

Asked if there is anything they would want some young person who is transitioning or questioning to know, Sam says, “That there is this really vibrant community that I wasn’t aware of, before I reached out, and how warm and welcoming we are. Because I was just terrified, really, for over six months, to come out, and completely isolated. I think there is support in the community at every stage, not just coming out; if you’re testing poz, if you’re looking for resources, or want to explore your thing.”

Lee adds, “Test often, practice safer sex, love yourself, and if you come up positive—realize that life isn’t over.”

For additional information about ManCaveChicago, go to communitycave.org. For more information about Ride for AIDS Chicago, go to rideforaids.org.