Editor’s note: Shannon Wyss requested and uses gender-neutral pronouns.
After majoring in international studies for hir undergrad degree and womens’ studies for hir master’s, Shannon Wyss wasn’t particularly seeking out AIDS work, but Wyss is passionate about both hir day job as grants manager for AIDS United and hir volunteer work at the D.C. Trans Coalition.
“My work at AIDS United is not really activist work for me, although we do have a policy department,” Wyss says. “What I love about it is that we look at HIV not as a biomedical issue, which it certainly is, but as an issue of social justice that focuses very much on why certain groups are affected more than others by HIV. This is not a coincidence. We find time and time again that the people most affected by it are also the most marginalized.”
Wyss says moving forward, increased — and at times uncomfortable — prevention efforts will be needed.
“I feel like medically we have the tools to mostly combat HIV at this point,” Wyss says. “The drugs that are out there are pretty effective. We don’t have a way of curing it, but we can treat it. Where we’re playing catch up is in preventing new infections. Maybe gay men need some messages that would make straight people a bit squeamish. Or we need to talk about access to clean syringes, but we’re not a culture that wants to acknowledge that it has a drug problem. There are a whole bunch of things culturally we need to address if we’re going to stop new infections. And we also have to address all the issues that go along with that, poverty, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, race — and I don’t think we’re ready to deal with all that.”
Wyss, a 40-year-old St. Louis native, has been in the Washington area about 17 years after going to college in Vassar (in New York) and spending a year abroad in Senegal on a study program.
Wyss and partner Katie Wanschura have been together nearly 10 years after meeting in a chorus. Two years ago they bought a house in Hyattsville, Md.
In hir free time, Wyss enjoys giving trans and LGBT seminars, working with gender non-conforming kids, photography, “puttering around the house,” reading, gardening, yard work and caring for the couple’s three cats and one dog.” (Blade photo by Michael Key)
How long have you been out and who was the hardest person to tell?
I’ve been out under varying labels since 1993. If I recall correctly, the hardest person to tell at the time was my favorite teacher from high school, whom I wasn’t sure would still accept me. She did and has remained one of my biggest supporters ever since.
Who’s your LGBT hero?
I deeply admire anyone who is able and willing to be true to hirself under difficult circumstances.
What’s Washington’s best nightspot, past or present?
I don’t do bars or clubs since I don’t drink or dance. But I love anyplace quiet where I can hang out with friends and loved ones.
Describe your dream wedding.
I don’t believe in assimilating into an institution that the state should not be involved in for any couple or group of people. But I was fortunate enough to have a wonderful commitment ceremony with my life partner in July.
What non-LGBT issue are you most passionate about?
Every issue is an LGBTQ issue! But of those who are commonly defined as “not-LGBTQ,” I would put racial and economic justice at the top of my list.
What historical outcome would you change?
Slavery — everywhere, but especially in the “New World.”
What’s been the most memorable pop culture moment of your lifetime?
Answering this would actually require me to be somewhat in touch with what “pop culture” is.
On what do you insist?
Justice and an equitable distribution of resources of all kinds for everyone.
What was your last Facebook post or Tweet?
“Wonderful session at the Harm Reduction Conference today on the anti-trafficking movement and how it is, overall, incredibly conservative, ageist, sexist, transphobic, pro-police and disempowering of youth. The feminist, LGBTQ, and harm reduction movements have to think harder about how we can support sex workers’ rights.”
If your life were a book, what would the title be?
“Privileged: How a White, Middle Class, Well-Educated Genderqueer Tried to Make Social Change”
If science discovered a way to change sexual orientation, what would you do?
Help all of the straight women who can’t find a decent man!
What do you believe in beyond the physical world?
I’m about as agnostic as I can be. So I’m not sure if there’s anything beyond where/what we are now.
What’s your advice for LGBT movement leaders?
It’s about justice, not “just us.” Work with other social justice movements and ours will advance so much more quickly.
What would you walk across hot coals for?
It would have to be something really huge, like a cure for cancer or HIV or world peace. Aside from that, I like my feet just the way they are, thank you.
What LGBT stereotype annoys you most?
What annoys me the most are our community’s attempts to run frantically away from some of the stereotypes about us. There is nothing wrong with being a feminine man, a masculine woman, a radical feminist, sex-positive or a drag queen.
What’s your favorite LGBT movie?
There are so, so many that I haven’t seen! But I do love “Boys Don’t Cry” and “But I’m a Cheerleader.”
What’s the most overrated social custom?
Mornings. And the five-day work week.
What trophy or prize do you most covet?
Being seen as an advocate for social change by my family, friends, and coworkers and, what’s a lot harder, being someone who actually makes change happen.
What do you wish you’d known at 18?
That my life was about to get dramatically better when I went to college and left my small, private, Catholic, cliquey, conservative, all-girls high school.
I moved here right after college in 1995 and never left: great mass transit, free museums, a really diverse population and progressive overall. What’s not to like?