BY MICHAEL FONTANA
I’ve met some truly remarkable people: activists and pioneers, celebrities and artists, teachers and poets, icons and heroes. It’s rare, though, that I come across an individual like Brian Belovitch.
I met Brian a few years ago through a mutual friend, the performance artist, actress, and playwright Penny Arcade. Penny suggested we might have something in common, and urged me to read his memoir, Trans Figured. She’s worked with iconic queers like Quentin Crisp, so I listened to her suggestion. Sure enough, the book was unique. I was awestruck – for the first time in a long time.
As AIDS killed a generation of queer people, Belovitch was front and center, watching his community fight the stigma and the disease. But he was watching as “she,” living as a transgender woman named Tish Gervais, or Natalia.
Belovitch battled the stigma in society and within our own community around trans people. A stigma that continues today. She bore witness to a deadly and heartbreaking epidemic. He transitioned back from female to male, recovered from addiction, and found true love both from within and in the arms of a husband who loves him just as he is.
He has the distinction of being the only person I’ve encountered who lived as a transgender woman and transitioned back. And he now spends his professional life helping others recover from addiction.
Here’s what he had to say.
MF: As recently as 15 years ago, we didn’t have words that identified us other than drag, gay, butch, queen etc. When did you know you were different from your peers, and how do you identify?
BB: I identify as a cis, gay male of trans experience. I knew very early that I was different. It was a great revelation until society, family, friends turned it into something shameful.
MF: What was your experience with gay men when you came out as Tish?
BB: Sadly, I wasn’t accepted with open arms in the gay community as a trans woman back in the day. There was a level of envy I always felt from some gay men, and for some even a sense of disgust. The lesbian women had their issues with it too. Luckily, I had a close circle of friends who did support and believe in me.
MF: Your chosen name was Tish Gervais, but you also went by Natalia. Can you tell us about who Tish was/is and who Natalia was/is?
BB: They were the same. Tish was a nickname that stuck after a friend found saying Natalia was too much of a mouthful. I never bothered to resist and just went with it.
MF: Many queer kids grew up without role models. There were no LGBTQ characters for us to look up to, so many of us looked to strong women like Bette Davis or Madonna. There were not many people of color on TV and in films either, so many were left out of the conversation – and still are. As a child and into adulthood, who were your idols?
BB: I’m a graduate from the Bette Davis School of Drama! I gravitated towards strong, powerful woman. Mae West was another, and in music Miss Ross saved my life as a lonely, frightened teen.
MF: Tell me about the wildest, funnest times Tish/Natalia had.
BB: It’s hard to pick one, but at the peak of NY nightlife in the 1980s, I was having quite a blast performing at all those clubs and finally feeling like I might just make something of my life. Sadly, addiction reared its ugly head.
MF: What were some of the scariest experiences you had in the world as a transgender woman?
BB: I’ve had guns pulled on me by tricks that didn’t know I was trans. The scariest night, which isn’t in my book or film, was one night I met Mr Goodbar. I picked up this sexy, dark-haired Eric Roberts lookalike at a hustler bar in Hell’s Kitchen. He took me back to his apartment in TriBeCa and threatened to force me into whoring for him. He took a pair of scissors and was threatening to castrate me. He stuck the scissors up my nose and was going to cut up my nostrils. Finally, he took me at gunpoint to the ATM where I escaped.
MF: Sex work was one of few options for transgender women. Did you ever enjoy turning tricks, or was it simply survival?
BB: Both. Sometimes you could meet really good guys. And then there were always the assholes who would try it with you. Rule number 1: ALWAYS GET THE MONEY FIRST!
MF: Did you ever feel the misogyny in the gay community would prevent you from finding true life having Tish/Natalia in your history?
BB: That was a difficult mountain to climb. It took a long time, and kissing a lot of frogs, to meet a prince. It wasn’t until I found acceptance within myself over my past that I was able to find love. I’d tell anyone to be patient and be open to possibility. It was such a new world to me when I came out as gay again. I couldn’t have picked a worse time as it was the height of the AIDS epidemic and I was also HIV positive, which only made it more difficult. I didn’t meet Jim until I was 14 years sober.
MF: Did transitioning back to a gay male identity coincide or have anything to do with your decision to get clean?
BB: It had everything to do with it. As a person in recovery, we are asked to do a fearless, searching moral inventory, and whenever I do anything it’s always to the best of my ability. I took a very deep dive into that process and, yes, the results were transformative.
MF: What was your”bottom” with regard to alcohol and drugs?
BB: I was minutes from homelessness, and crack cocaine had ruled my life. It was brutal, and there were many life-threatening situations. I’ve been in recovery since 1986 and, one day at a time, I have not had to use any substances since then. It’s truly a miracle. I feel tremendously grateful every day, always.
MF: What was it like to get the diagnosis that you were HIV positive? How did it affect you?
BB: I can remember every horrible detail from that day. In retrospect, it really rocked my world and, as weird as it may sound, I’m grateful at how it shook me to change my life for the better.
MF: What do you think of all the terms, and fighting over pronouns, and other infighting in the LGBTQ community? Is it a battle we need to fight?
BB: I get it, we need to evolve. I really do. But I’m not fond of policing others. Back in my day, tranny was a term of endearment and a compliment. Everyone needs to find their own comfort level, but I’m the last one to tell anyone what to do.
MF: People are always asking about body parts and sexual acts when talking to transgender people. Why do you think they go there with transgender people and not anyone else?
BB: This was my experience as a trans woman too. I think it’s because of the shame we are taught about being anything other than cis-gender. It runs deep in the trans and lesbian gay community. My role model back in the day was International Chrysis, who was completely honest and open about her genitalia. She had no problem talking about it with anyone and it was refreshing and inspiring. This modern idea about it being something to shy away from I believe leads to more problems and less acceptance. She was a woman with a penus and was proud of it.
MF: What would you tell a yourself as a child if you could go back and give your younger self advice?
BB: I would tell myself that all the horrible things that people were saying to me were not true and that I was perfect just the way I was. What a difference that would have made.
MF: What would you say to all the people who are dealing with their gender identities and considering transition or hormones?
BB: Everyone is on their own path and, unlike me, I would say seek out as much support and knowledge that you can and use patience as your guide.
MF: You were a GLAAD nominee for Boys Don’t Wear Lipstick, and are the founder of Queer Stages. Are you working on any artistic pursuits at the moment? Any plans?
BB: I’m planning another book, about reclaiming my male identity one pronoun at a time. There’s a screenplay in my drawer that I’m rewriting in between trying to finish my graduate program in mental health counseling. My story is also the subject of the documentary I’m Gonna Make You Love Me, which will premiere at DOC NYC in November.
MF: What do you want your legacy to be?
BB: I guess, I’d like to be remembered most for inspiring others to understand that gender isn’t limited to a final destination, but it can be a long and fabulous adventure.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Fontana is a writer, actor, artist, and creator of the character Eileen Dover and other stage personas. He is writing a one-man show about the trials and tribulations of growing up in South Boston as well as life in and out of the spotlight. He also produces a monthly series called Reading For Filth, a tribute to friend and artist Hattie Hathaway and artist Dean Johnson and all the other creatives both living and deceased. He lives in Hell’s Kitchen.
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