By Michelle Talsma Everson, January 2019 Issue.
Nearly three years ago, when he tested positive for HIV, Eion Cashman says that all of the self worth he gained from his transition went out the window.
“I was numb for weeks. I was already trans. I was already gay. Hadn’t I paid my dues?”
But, after making “big changes a few steps at a time,” he began to feel empowered once more. So, he went on a journey to empower others.
Cashman, 26, is a navigator and a leader, not only by personality type but also by necessity. Before sharing his story, he emphasizes that he is not a “poster child” nor is he representative of the whole trans community. He’s just one person sharing, taking the lessons learned, and passing them along.
As the Transgender Health Navigator for the Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS, telling his story as a trans man who is HIV positive is literally part of his job description. “I originally applied at the Southwest Center for the PrEP program, but I didn’t get the job. But, they told me they had something else in mind for me,” Cashman says. “Since working at Southwest Center I’ve been able to get involved in many of the Center’s outreach and prevention initiatives. It’s the first job I’ve had where I’ve been out as trans, and it’s been a privilege to be part of developing a new initiative that helps the trans community.”
Cashman was instrumental in helping develop the Southwest Center’s Transgender Resources and Navigation Services (TRANS) Program, which seeks to “increase access to high-quality care and support for transgender and gender non-conforming members of our community.”
“Helping other trans people to navigate different services is something I’ve repeatedly — and naturally — always fallen into,” Cashman says. “Jumping through hoops myself has helped me to come to this position with a body of hard-earned knowledge.”
Southwest Center’s TRANS Program “currently includes peer health navigation, HIV resources, stigma-free behavioral health counseling, and primary care, including hormone therapy initiation and management.”
Through the program, Cashman helps trans and gender nonconforming individuals to navigate issues like insurance coverage, changing names and/or gender markers on official documents, and more. Cashman also refers individuals to other community resources they may not have known about, like Trans Spectrum Arizona or Big Brothers Big Sisters, which offers mentorship to LGBTQ kids ages 6-17.
“It’s still a developing program, one that will grow as we do, and I’ve met with several trans people seeking help so far for a variety of issues,” he says. “It’s important to note that not one trans person’s journey is the same. Every trans experience is different and they should each be able to take a lead on their own care. One similarity though is that trans people most often have a hard time navigating the system. The world is not built for us, so we have find ways to make the world work for us.”
Cashman came out as trans in college, when he decided to be unapologetically himself. He pursued psychology and biomedical sciences and was able to secure an internship doing outreac h for Northern Arizona University’s LGBTQA Resources and Support Program.
“As part of that internship I helped start a support group for trans persons, where we’d share resources,” he explains. “I realized through my own experiences fighting to be who I was and to make ends meet that it shouldn’t be as hard as it is for trans people to access the care they need to be who they are. I work every day to make Arizona a better place for trans people.”
Cashman found that fairly early on in his medical transition, he passed as a cisgender man, so he didn’t necessarily need to be out as trans. He noticed that, as he passed more, he was both a part of his Flagstaff trans community and drifting away from it at the same time. “It’s hard to articulate male privilege until you walk into it,” he says. As he began to be gendered as male all the time, he realized that he had more platforms to speak and to exist in the world, and how important it was that he did.
No matter how well Cashman passed though, working on his graduate degree in Flagstaff was an isolating experience as a trans man. He experienced difficulty receiving competent medical care, especially when it came to HIV prevention. Cashman tried to get on PrEP (a.k.a. Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, a once-a-day pill to prevent HIV) four times because he knew he was at risk for HIV. Each attempt was thwarted. “Because I was still genetically female, the sex I was having wasn’t considered ‘gay sex’ and therefore, in the eyes of my insurance companies, I was not at a high enough risk to go on PrEP,” he explains.
On January 15, 2016, Cashman learned he was HIV-positive. “I received a warning from the state that a previous partner had exposed me to HIV, which made me go get tested, even though I had recently tested negative,” he says. The state has a free-of-charge program, that if you self-report as HIV positive, they will call previous partners for you.
“HIV is unlike anything I’ve ever dealt with before,” he says. It had been a whirlwind few years — Cashman had socially transitioned in 2012, began medically transition in 2013, and in 2014-2015 felt like he had really become empowered. In 2016, the HIV diagnosis sent him into a self-hatred spiral.
Through education and support, his journey began to turn for the better. He called the Coconino County Public Health Department and the support of caseworkers, including Rose Wall, helped him to keep going. His best friend also made him go to the gym to put back on weight. Slowly, the world seemed more hopeful.
Then, a close friend invited him to learn about opportunities in Phoenix. It was then that he learned about the Southwest Center and how they help people get PrEP. He was impressed by their approach to community health care and applied to work with them. Cashman has also worked hard to build himself up to be healthy and undetectable. Cashman has gone from feeling the loss of self-worth he experienced when he was diagnosed as HIV-positive to becoming someone who is bold in who he is and who helps others navigate the journey he walked. Cashman has come a long way, and he is now helping others do the same.
“My life is now more wonderful than I could have ever imagined,” he says. “I am unbelievably happy. I have a job I adore, a community I love, and a partner I’m crazy about. I’m thrilled for whatever comes next.”
When asked about the future, he notes that he never expected to be where he’s at today, so he’s decided not to make any specific plans.
“I will continue to live my long-term ideals of spreading kindness and helping the community in the future. Lately, I’ve even been getting involved in the community politically because I recognize and understand that, under the current administration, the trans community is at risk of being erased,” he explains. “The trans community is where the Gay Rights Movement was in the ‘60s and ‘70s. There’s a lot to do. But we’ve done it before and we’ll do it again. I want a better future for my trans siblings and am honored to help along the way.”
To learn more about the Southwest Center and its TRANS program, visit www.swcenter.org.