Echo Inducts Josef Burwell into Hall of Fame

Class of 2017

Photos courtesy of Josef Burwell.

By Staff, November 2017 Issue. Meet the rest of the Class of 2017 here.

Since July 26, countless service members and veterans have come forward to bravely fight – again, but for a different cause this time – by showing the world the many variations of what transgender military service looks like.

Josef Burwell is one of those brave warriors.

Burwell enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1979 as a lesbian-identified female and served as a signals intelligence analyst, which required a top-secret security clearance in order to work with codes, ciphers and their interpretation. It was the top-secret clearance that specifically led to extra scrutiny of about Burwell’s personal life by officials. The stated concern, he recalled, was that homosexuality, for example, would make a service member vulnerable to blackmail for the secret information they worked with.

“I was questioned repeatedly about my sexuality, Burwell recalled. “… I hid my sexuality to get the clearance, thereby committing perjury, a serious offense that all gays and lesbians with clearances necessarily subjected [us] to in order to serve. Many of us got caught up in what became recognized as a purge of gay and lesbian intelligence personnel in 1980.”

Burwell’s trajectory as a soldier was decidedly cut short, and he was held for four months for interrogations and subjected various types of abuse after being entrapped by a security officer who was also a lesbian and trying to lessen her charges of perjury.

Because gays and lesbians were not allowed in the armed forces at all before 1994 and “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (DADT) didn’t become law until 14 years Burwell’s ordeal, he warns, “My time in the U.S. Army is pertinent because it serves as a cautionary tale for what is happening to transgender people in uniform today … when I was a soldier they DID ask. The same is set to occur for transgender individuals. ”

It’s not only Burwell’s experience as someone who went back into the closet to fulfill her call to service that made him a qualified spokesperson when the “Trans Ban” was introduced, but he also transitioned genders while working alongside the military as a civilian contractor.

“I literally transitioned genders while in the company of some of the bravest men and women on the planet. I was proud to be assigned to work among them,” he wrote in an essay that was published at and by the ACLU following the President’s three Tweets declaring his intent to ban trans military service. (Read “The Trans Ban” by Burwell here.)

“So many people can’t speak up because of fear for their jobs, fear in their families, or a sense of transphobia at large,” he said. “Either I’m naïve to think I’ve developed immunity after what happened to me in 1980, or the need to speak up blinds my better senses, but I’m driven to speak for those who can’t.”

While Burwell didn’t come out as trans until age 56, it did alter the focus of my career as a physician’s assistant.

“I founded Peacework Medical in 2000 … [as] a fully volunteer nonprofit that provides primary care to the most vulnerable and marginalized in our communities,” Burwell said. “I transitioned Peacework Medical along with me. We had been in Haiti since 2010 … We turned the clinic over to our Haitian counterparts and, in September 2015, we opened the free clinic for undocumented gender and sexuality minorities [here].”

Today, Peacework Medical is possible because of the space that Phoenix Allies for Community Health (PACH) provides the nonprofit to operate out of.

Additionally, Burwell serves on the board for both PACH as well as Trans*Spectrum of Arizona (TSAZ), a peer support group for the transgender community.

“TSAZ is so important as a peer support group for all of us in the transgender community – wherever we are on the spectrum, as well as our significant others, friends, families, and allies,” he said.  “Peer support is sometimes the only link between feeling absolutely alone in this frightening new adventure of transition and feeling real community and answers. I see, in-person, how effective it is and I’ve experienced it for myself. ”

One thing that all of Burwell’s individual efforts have in common is that they exist to overcome the challenges and setbacks our community has experienced since January.

“[This year] has been remarkable in that this is the year when we would read the headlines to see what new affront to our civil rights had taken place; who now was being threatened with loss of freedoms; who was being freshly insulted. This is absurd of course, but it’s where we find ourselves,” he said. “We’ll survive this by taking care of one another; there is no other way. This environment has made Peacework Medical, TSAZ, and PACH even more important to our patients, members, and volunteers. We have to be the ‘center that holds’ when everything else is fraying and spinning loose.”

Web-Exclusive Q&A with Josef Burwell

EchoLet’s take it back to where it all began, sort of. Where are you from originally? Where were you raised?

Burwell: I was born and raised in Winston-Salem, N.C. I spent the first 32 years of my life in either North Carolina or Blacksburg, Va.,  before coming to Arizona in 1995. I enlisted in 1979, having just turned 21, in Raleigh, N.C.

EchoWould you care to recap your military career for us here?

Burwell: … By age 21 I was self-identifying as a lesbian, and had been for three years. I hid my sexuality …  I was simply doing my job in the U.S. Army with minor commendations on track for consideration as a candidate for Officers’ Candidate School (OCS). I had scored expert in rifle and grenade, became a squad leader, represented my base on its softball team, and had been given the opportunity to help others who were still learning to be analysts.

My trajectory as a soldier was decidedly cut short, and I was held for for months for interrogations and various types of abuse after being entrapped by a security officer who was also a lesbian and trying to lessen her charges of perjury. Being lesbian was simply an administrative discharge, but remember the perjury charge – and they wanted names of others.

But I refused to give the interrogators any names of other gay and lesbian soldiers. I knew many who were serving honorably and well. But as I wouldn’t tell, their force against me intensified. It was an extremely difficult four months, which at age 22, there were times that I didn’t think I would survive, not a far fetched idea because I was threatened with being shot more than once by armed sargeants. I was finally released after weekly threats of “years in Leavenworth Prison” for, by that time, insubordination, derelection of duty, and don’t forget the perjury. There were lots of other threats as well. Some were actually carried out – but after four months, I guess they decided I was not going to give them the names they wanted. I had been food and sleep deprived, lost 20 pounds, but somewhat suddenly had my freedom after four months of this abuse. I spent the next year successfully getting my discharge upgraded to honorable, based on my record prior to the abuse. Remarkably, this was successful. Not providing the names of others left my dignity intact. It took awhile to rebuild my resiliency, but returning to college at the University of North Carolina was the first step back to normalcy.

Echo: Where did you attend medical school and what was that experience like? Did you always know this was the field you were meant to be a part of?

Burwell: I went to PA School at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, which is located in my hometown. I went to PA School at age 31, and this was a return ‘home’ after being away since 18. A lot had happened in the interim. My mother had come to accept my sexuality after years (my father never seemed to have a problem). And I had never told my family about what went on with the Army. So, literally going home to my childhood bedroom in my parents’ house to become a student again was humbling, and yes, we needed to talk. We did. It was amazing. They were still pretty vibrant in 1992 – at almost 70 years of age – and I got to know them again after a decade of being prodigal. The quasi-estrangement had been bilateral, a function of my mother and I both being stubborn. It’s a trait I thank her for sometimes. Only sometimes. Stubbornness is a blessing and a curse, and of course it goes by other names: focused, unrelenting, driven – but those words are used only when the cause is agreeable to all. Stubborn is the right word when people don’t agree with your cause. I’ve been called all of these.

I didn’t always know I would become a PA, but it was fairly evident I was going to find my way into some sort of healing profession. Odd as it sounds, I had saved two lives by age 12. Seriously! One was a drowning child on the bottom of a crowded public pool; I simply scooped her up and rolled her, not breathing or apparently conscious, onto the deck. Trained lifeguards took over and she did ok. The other was a choking classmate in Grade 6. He really could not speak because of flipping a quarter into his airway. I performed the Heimlich and it popped out. But anyway, I became a lifeguard at age 15, then worked on an ambulance crew after college, cardiac rehab Master’s at VA Techf, so PA was the obvious terminal degree. I have practiced emergency medicine for 24 years, and it’s been a tremendous privilege. I can’t imagine any other profession other than PA that would have afforded me the insight into people’s real lives and the ticket to do what I can with that information to improve their lives.

I’ve worked in 10 different countries between Peacework Medical and the U.S. Government opportunities, was part owner in Advantage Urgent Care for seven years, served on Native lands and inside federal security prisons, and in every way saw things far off the pavement. This profession is what you make it. I’ve about pulled every drop out of it.

EchoWhat brought you to Arizona and what year was that?

Burwell: I arrived in 1995 because my dear friend Jennifer Linde was producing and directing the play called A Credit To Her Country. I had never met Jennifer at that time, but I had been sending the playwright cassette tapes to her office in San Francisco so she could write this play about my and other women’s experiences in the military. The play was poignant, as an understatement. But visiting Arizona in November? I was never going to leave. PA’s can work anywhere. I chose here as home base, starting out in Morenci, Ariz.

EchoHow does your experience and perspective as a transgender-identified individual influence or change the way you view healthcareWhy are trans and gender minority rights so important to you?

Burwell: Currently, there is a paucity of information for primary care clinicians on how to address transgender patients. Even the ones who want to be allies have to seek out their own orientation and training for the basics of language, friendly office space and documentation procedures, training their  staff, name usage in the case of a person not having a legal name change yet and, most importantly, [to learn] what we as transgender people may be asking for … I’m committed to making access to this information possible for physical and mental health providers.

Currently I’m working with an undergrad student in Washington who will intern with Peacework Medical and coordinate our outreach efforts to clinical and social work offices. Also, I’m editing a paper written by a PA that directly addresses transgender care at the primary level – she will submit it for publication soon. It’s important to me to note that Dr. Carolyn Fuller came to Peacework Medical to train our volunteer staff specifically in [hormone replacement therapy (HRT)], something she had been doing for well over a decade with success.

EchoYou recently accepted Equality Arizona’s Humanitarian of the Year award on behalf of Phoenix Allies for Community Health (PACH). What did that mean to you?

Burwell: PACH is incredibly effective at what it does, and they are very deserving of this Humanitarian of the Year award. Bob and Amy McMullen, and Jason Ohdner had a great vision for this clinic five years ago, and have followed through with the perseverance and the resilence it takes to have a full fledged primary care home for hundreds of patients who would otherwise go without.

Echo:  You were awarded the 2017 Leadership in LGBTQ Health Award through the Lets Get better Together Conference earlier this year; what was that experience like and what does that award mean to you?

Burwell: This award really speaks to what Peacework Medical is trying to do for those in our community who cannot access care, and for the access to primary care information that is becoming more and more important for responsible trans friendly providers . I was honored to receive it on behalf of our volunteers.

Echo: You’re currently serving as the vice president of TSAZ and on the board for AZ PACH, why is leadership within these organizations important to you?

Burwell: Being in leadership positions in TSAZ and PACH helps me do my part to assure their respective continuity. Board positions are not glamorous, they are tedious and sometimes demanding. But if you believe in the mission, you want these organizations to succeed. This doesn’t just happen by watchful waiting; it’s an active process to drive the bus and sometime make repairs.

EchoSpeaking of, how do you define success?

Burwell:  Success is starting a day with a clean slate – free of lagging demands or unsettled regret from the previous day.

EchoDo you have any family you’d like to introduce our readers to?

Burwell: Tamira Burns (most know her as Tam) is my partner. She does everything I do except in heels and in reverse – that’s a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers reference for the youth. But seriously, she is a social justice dynamo who has been the front desk wrangler for Peacework Medical since we came to Phoenix. We were introduced in the community because a mutual friend thought our social causes would benefit. Well, yes, that happened too. And she loves my dog, Lucy, [who is ] my 8-year-old four legged sweetheart – a sensitive mix of Belgian Shepherd, Husky, Chow and Beagle.

Echo: Who are some of your role models/inspirations and why?

Burwell: The young people who are DACA; transgender women of color; transgender youth who are not accepted in their homes. These people inspire me because it takes ultimate guts to get through any given day, and it’s not getting easier.

Echo: What’s your favorite piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Burwell: “Every shift comes to an end.” This advice came to me early on in an ER from an experienced physician during a rough night … it has a lot of application in life.

Echo: In the spirit of Transgender Awareness Month, what’s one thing you’d like our LGB siblings to know about the trans experience ?

Burwell: Gender is so uniquely different from sexuality … Transgender is difficult to explain to a cisgender person because you’re explaining a feeling. Few among us are very good at that.  In my case, when I was younger, I thought many other lesbians felt this way, too. But now I realize I was projecting, as well as conflating sexuality and gender. So, it’s not easy to get convincing words lined up to explain it. But the feeling is very clear: a transgender person feels like they are not the gender they were assigned at birth. An ally takes you at your word.

Echo: What advice do you have for anyone who is considering coming out later on in life?

Burwell: You make your own schedule ultimately. We’re led to believe otherwise, but really, the individual can make time for whatever he or she wants; it’s a matter of priorities, focus and discipline. There is never a “too late” time to transition! Some of us dreamed and wished for our affirmed gender when we were very young, but suppressed it for decades and decades. Being your true, authentic self is not on a timeline. Every year left on earth matters, and it matters to be who you are in the years here.

EchoThis has been a rough year for transgender service members. Once the Trans Ban was announced July 26, you jumped into action by talking to the media and lending your voice to other print media outlets, including the ACLU.

Burwell: I was in a war zone when those three Tweets were sent out intending to outlaw transgender troops. I felt personally offended, outrage for our service members, and I also felt as if I was in a safe place to speak up as a civilian. So I did. I couldn’t sleep until I did. I wrote that essay in one sitting, and Steve Kilar of the ACLU linked the facts I had stated, making it a more powerful piece.

So many people can’t speak up because of fear for their jobs, fear in their families, or a sense of transphobia at large. Either I’m naive to think I’ve developed immunity after what happened to me in 1980, or the need to speak up blinds my better senses, but I’m driven to speak for those who can’t.

Echo: Where do you see yourself five years from now? Where to you see Peacework Medical five years from now?

Burwell: In January 2018 I’ll be retiring from the contracting work, so no more trips ! I’ll turn 60 in November 2018, so this seemed like a good time to make the leap to full time humanitarian work. Accordingly, in the next five years I would like to see Peacework Medical have a better volunteer outreach program for teaching clinics how to treat transgender patients; improved funding mechanisms for us; improved recruitment and retention of volunteers; improved Q&A data; and more student research.

Congratulations to the Class of 2017! Meet the rest of the Class of 2017 here.