Illinois transgender activist goes to Washington

by Joseph Erbentraut

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday January 29, 2010

When Helena Bushong was elected chair of Illinois Gender Advocates late last year, her reaction was one of appropriate excitement. Her election was inevitably overshadowed, however, by what was to occur only weeks later.

Bushong became the first transgender woman of color -- and only the second trans person -- ever invited to an official White House strategy meeting.

The invitation to participate in the Office of National AIDS Policy's "Women and HIV" discussion was the result of several years of tireless dedication to advocacy in the Windy City, including work as community co-chair for the HIV Prevention Planning Group, a position with the Chicago Area HIV Service Planning Council and membership with both Illinois ASAP and the Chicago AIDS Foundation.

"As I left the White House, I thought with a smile, 'Tranny girl goes to the White House," Bushong, who lives with HIV herself, wrote of the experience. "Before that day, even I might have balked at the idea, but now, anything is possible."

The trip was the culmination of a "whirlwind" fall that seems to have had a deeply empowering effect on Bushong, whose relentless optimism - and packed schedule of activism and advocacy - is undeniably inspiring to those around her. Obviously emboldened by her trip to the White House, Bushong has an expansive to-do list for IGA in the new year as the organization heads in an ambitious direction under new leadership.

On the legal front, IGA, which has seen its membership grow immensely in recent months, hopes to build support for the Vital Records Act (Senate Bill 1354.) The bill, which state Sen. Heather Steans introduced, would open the door to an easier process for trans people to change their gender identity on their birth certificates, Social Security cards and other documents. The organization will also continue to address safety in public restrooms.

Perhaps even more significant, IGA plans to lead a citywide effort to bring together the many different trans organizations in hopes of overcoming past tensions over identity that have, in the eyes of many, hindered their collective progress. Bushong said a meeting Wednesday at the Center on Halsted was the first step in what she expects to be a long process toward "getting the work done that needs to get done," addressing housing and health care disparities in addition to the above endeavors.

"We hope to bring all these different, fractured groups together and create a dialogue to share information and resources and appear as a united front," she told EDGE. "We want to be a resources center, a place to come to with questions, ideas and information relating to the gender-variant community."

And the term "gender-variant" is one Bushong uses very intentionally; as part of that dialogue of openness where subtleties of language matter a great deal.

"I started using the term 'gender-variant' because it serves as an umbrella term, an easy way I can think of including everyone," she said. "It's not only about trans, because when some people think about trans, their knowledge doesn't always go beyond male or female, and it needs to be a much bigger umbrella than that. We need to say to these other people who only thought there were two genders that there's another, and another, and it's not as linear as you thought it to be. There's a whole community out there. We have to enter the political arena to develop laws and policies to help empower us and allow us to live comfortably."

Bushong referenced President Barack Obama's appointment of Chicago native Amanda Simpson, a trans woman, to a Department of Commerce post earlier this month as a sign of progress. Simpson's is the first known presidential appointment of a trans person, marking a victory practically unthinkable as recently as a decade ago. Bushong herself has political ambitions. And she hopes to run for office some day, educating others along the way to become their own biggest advocates.

"For too long, the 'T' has been silent and I think other parts of the alphabet have attempted many times in litigation and policy-making, to exclude us from this bill or that bill because it'd 'offend' the religious right," Bushong added. "But now we're saying we are a community and this is who we are."

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to to read more of his work.