Each month we profile a hero in the fight against HIV—a researcher working to stop the disease, a staff member improving health in our community, a dedicated donor, or someone living with HIV who's an inspiration to everyone around them. This month we profile Johanna, a client of San Francisco AIDS Foundation. She reminds us to stay true to ourselves, hold our heads high, and always give thanks.
Johanna’s journey over the last four years has not been easy. There were many times when she wanted to give up. But step by step, she has found a new voice and she’s looking ahead to a brighter future. She says she wouldn’t be where she is today without San Francisco AIDS Foundation.
When Johanna first walked through the doors of the foundation more than four years ago, she was John. She had been living in a body that never quite felt right to her. It was taking its toll.
“I remember before I first came to the foundation I wanted to kill myself,” said Johanna. “I’d had enough. I just couldn’t deal with it anymore. I remember sitting down with a staff member, and he said to me, ‘I’m here,’ and he wouldn’t leave the room. That meant so much to me.”
After several years of coming to the foundation, finding community in the Black Brothers Esteem program, and learning to come to terms with her HIV diagnosis, Johanna knew it was time to make her transition to a woman.
“Many people around me did not understand why I was transitioning to a woman at such a late age,” said Johanna. “But the staff at the foundation helped those people to understand why trans women or trans men do what they do. The staff here is amazing and they’ve helped me so much through this important time in my life.”
Johanna’s transition began about a year ago, and it hasn’t always been easy. She moved from Concord, where there are very few services for trans women and people living with HIV, to San Francisco. Her first housing arrangement was in the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood, where she faced very serious challenges every day.
“I was living in hotels with mice and roaches. People were stealing my clothes and cell phones,” said Johanna. “I started losing hope and I didn’t think I could keep going.”
But like she has so many times in the past, Johanna turned to the staff at San Francisco AIDS Foundation for support.
“There’s times when I’m out in the Tenderloin and I don’t understand what’s going on, because that’s not the background I came from,” said Johanna. “I don’t come from a background where everybody is cutthroat, or where everybody is stealing just to have more things. I come from a world where everybody shares, and helps, and loves each other. So when I’m having those difficulties out there, I come running into the foundation. And when I come in here, I find love.”
Through the services of the foundation, Johanna has now found a better place to live, and she’s working on getting more stable housing in the near future. She receives support to make sure she’s engaged in proper medical care, which improves her health, and she and all our clients learn important messages about preventing the spread of HIV. She’s also gaining more confidence every day, thanks to the strong network of people she’s met at the foundation.
“I cannot thank the staff here enough,” said Johanna. “It’s important to me that I thank them by name: Tony Bradford, Micah Lubensky, Ruben Salas, Audra Robinson, Donna Velasco, Marcos Hardman, Jamal Bey, Michelle Spence, and so many others. They have never criticized me. They have never judged me. ”
Indeed, Johanna has finally found herself, and everyone around her can see it.
“The foundation has allowed me to express who I am,” said Johanna. “It gives me a place to express myself, connect with my community as an African-American woman, and talk about issues surrounding HIV. I feel supported in a way I never thought I could be. Even my family doesn’t support me like this.”
Johanna knows there are still tough days ahead. But San Francisco AIDS Foundation will always be a safe port, no matter the storm.
“I still face struggles with housing and health,” said Johanna. “But the foundation has really helped to define me as a woman. Even when I have no appointments here, I know I can always come through the door and find people who love and support me, no matter what. I’m happy.”
It’s a happiness that radiates from the inside out, and it grows more vibrant every day.
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