People: Jennifer Erdrich, M.D., MPH

Surgical Oncologist and Assistant Professor of Surgery, University of Arizona College of Medicine

Photo by Thomas Veneklasen

Q: Where were you born?

San Diego

Q: How did you become interested in your career field?

I knew that I wanted to be a doctor, but had no clue I would become a surgeon. I was so convinced I would never choose surgery that I made it my last required rotation in medical school. I thought I was decided on internal medicine, and then my surgical rotation swept me away. The hours were longer but the clock turned faster because every minute was so enthralling.

Q: What is the biggest challenge of your job?

The time commitment. The training leading up to now and the job itself take everything you’ve got, which surgeons do because we love it, but the hardest part is that it demands so much of our loved ones.

Q: What is the greatest reward of your job?

Working with patients is a privilege. They trust us to make decisions and actions on their behalf when they are under anesthesia, and the honor of that relationship astounds me. As a surgical oncologist, a reward we hope to make happen for as many people as possible is telling them they are cancer-free.

Q: Do you have any family members in Tucson?

I do now! I met my husband here and since he grew up in Tucson I picked up a bunch of family members.

Q: What was the last book you read, and what did you enjoy the most about it?

Funny you should ask. I am working on a Masters in Fine Arts (MFA). Just yesterday I finished an assigned novel, Blue Ravens by Gerold Vizenor. He is White Earth Ojibwe and my father is Turtle Mountain Ojibwe. This was a unique book experience because I got to read the work of a prolific writer who shares our heritage and depicts a geographic region that is my home away from home.

Q: What’s your favorite food indulgence?

Ice cream.

Q: In 20 words or less, describe your perfect day.

After a full-night’s sleep, I would tap dance, sip coffee, go hiking, tangle with literature, and dine with family.

Picture Perfect Pooches

PHOTOS BY Tom Spitz

The three finalists for Tucson Lifestyle’s Cover Dog 2020 each display a lot of heart, and a powerful bond with their human companions. Here are their stories.

When we held our annual Cover Dog Search on Feb. 15 at La Encantada, we knew that we would be helping a worthy cause. And like every past year, we were prepared to see a lot of great canines of all types, sizes, and personalities. Choosing just three as finalists was a very tough job!

Judges this year were Alex Steiniger, co-anchor of KGUN’s Tucson Morning Blend, and Scott Barker, Editor-in-Chief for Tucson Lifestyle. Somewhere around 130 canines came to show their stuff, and all the monies raised benefited the vital programs of the Humane Society of Southern Arizona. Our most sincere gratitude to all the dog “parents,” supporters, animal related vendors, and the staff and volunteers of HSSAZ for making this a wonderful and very successful event.

The photo shoot for the pups took place at Udall Park, and Thom McDonald supplied the awesome, 1950 Chevy truck.

THE WINNER Brewski

Human companions: Dani and Jaydee

Brewski, a border collie, came into the lives of his human companions in 2012. Jaydee had grown up in Wyoming and worked on a sheep ranch as a kid, giving him a lot of respect for the breed. He has spent many hours training Brewski, as well as coaching Dani in how to be consistent in handling him. Dani also took the personable border collie to work with her for about the first five years of his life, helping to create a very powerful bond.

His unusual name is the result of the black and tan in his tri-merle coloring, and his nickname is “Bruce.”

Border collies are thought to be the result of breeding between herding dogs that were used in the area that’s currently the United Kingdom during the time of the Roman Empire, and smaller, faster spitz-breed dogs that came over with the Vikings. The exact origin of the word collie is disputed, but it may have come from the Scottish word coolly, which refers to a type of sheep. To this day, border collies can frequently be found herding sheep in the highlands of Scotland and Wales.

RUNNER UP Guinness

Human companion: Joan

Guinness was adopted from Basenji Rescue and Transport (BRAT) when he was four months old. He was left in a box at a veterinary clinic in Las Vegas with a litter of five other puppies, and was originally named Ace (his siblings had gambling-related names, too). Due to his coloring, he was renamed for the famous Irish beer, popularly used to create a “black and tan” mix of two beers layered together.

His breed originated in Central Africa, and is well known for vocalizations that run the gamut of howls and yodels (rather than barking), and for athleticism and intelligence — often mixed with “I’m-Not- Listening-To-You” stubbornness.

Basenji means “villager dog” in the Lingala language.

RUNNER UP Louie

Human companions: Paul and Sue

Louie is a mixed breed, with some evident Australian shepherd, who was adopted from Pima County Animal Care Center (PACC). He had been hit by a car, and was personally attended to by PACC’s Dr. Jen Wilcox, who even took him into her home for a month. He had several different names as he moved through the system until Sue, who volunteers for PACC’s clinic, felt — together with her husband Paul — that Louie was a good fit for the sweet little canine.

Australian shepherds, despite their name, are believed to have developed exclusively on ranches in the Western U.S. Their association with Basque sheepherders, who emigrated here (sometimes from Down Under) from the 19th century into the 1950s, is where the “Aussie” tag seems to have originated.

They are intelligent, tireless, and good-natured, making them wonderful companions and family dogs. The American Kennel Club reports that they are ranked number 17 out of 195 breeds in popularity.

2020 COVER DOG SEARCH

Pictured at The Event

EVENT PHOTOS BY Daniela Siqueiros

Keep on Truckin’!

Thom McDonald bought this 1950 Chevy truck for his wife Sharon in 1999. The truck was a mess, and he paid only $700 for it, and then took the next six years for a complete, frame-up restoration.

The Chevy sports a 402 cubic-inch motor with an M-22 4-speed transmission, Lincoln 9-inch rear end, Mustang 2 front independent suspension, and 4-wheel disc brakes. Thom painted it himself and added the chile graphics. He comments, “Since it was finished in 2005, we have driven it to all the local shows in Tucson, Scottsdale, Sierra Vista, and Silver City.

“Sharon wanted the truck to be black with tan interior and all the chrome redone. She calls the chrome the jewelry.”

People: Q&A

Michael McDonald / CEO of Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona

Photo by Thomas Veneklasen

Q: How did you become interested in your career field?

Like so many important and worthwhile gifts that come along in a life, I kind of fell into nonprofit leadership. As a teenager I wanted to be priest, that is until I fully understood what celibacy meant (or wouldn’t mean). So I sort of wandered part-time through too long an undergraduate program at the UA while being a stay-at-home dad and working nights and weekends as a janitor at St. Joseph’s Hospital. Each evening I ran into the same little old nun who crept down the long corridors. She’d always chime out, “Michael, Pray for Admissions. Because without margin, there is no mission.” In well over a century of their healing ministry here in Southern Arizona, those nuns were more successful capitalists than any high-profile businessman I’ve ever come to know. Eventually I’d get a business management degree, work in a for-profit, and when I got laid off, stumble into my first “profit-with-a-purpose” (nonprofit) gig.

Q: What is the biggest challenge of your job?

When a peer of mine at another organization was struggling with the challenging role of being their organization’s titular leader, I thought of how much I enjoy playing the piano, teasing melodies and harmonics out of the instrument while hammering away at some fun and funky rhythms. All of this made possible by the great pressure placed upon the piano’s unseen workaday bridge, over which the sparkling strings are strung pitch-perfect and furiously hammered away at. An effective nonprofit leader should be that bridge.

Q: What is the greatest reward of your job?

The reward is that someone enjoys and benefits from the instrument’s (nonprofit’s) beautiful music. The greatest reward is when other instruments join in. Now that becomes the making of quite the community pachanga!

Q: Do you have any family members in Tucson?

My beloved spouse of 40 years and I are very thankful that our three children and five grandchildren live in Tucson, as well as other extended family across Southern Arizona.

Q: What’s your favorite food indulgence?

Along with an ever-present side of medium-heat salsa, my go-tos — brought to you today by the letter “B” — are beans, beer, and brownies.

Samantha’s Story

Samantha is a former Wildcat.

A mom.

A project manager at Honeywell.

An advocate for those needing a voice.

And she’s a transgender person.

Chances are, you may have even met Samantha at some point, and not even guessed her journey.

 

SCOTT BARKER

“The reality is that there are trans individuals everywhere,” she observes. “They are probably in your life, whether you realize it or not. They may be working beside you, or they’re teachers in your kids’ schools, or they’re taking care of you at the grocery store. Trans people are everywhere, in every occupation in life. We make up somewhere around one percent of the population.”

You probably have heard of some famous trans individuals: American transgender surgery pioneer and entertainer Christine Jorgensen; tennis player Renée Richards; U.S. Olympian Caitlyn Jenner; model Caroline “Tula” Cossey; actress Laverne Coxx; and pop star Kim Petras, to name just a few. But despite the fact that many brave souls have stepped forward to present their stories to the world, coming out as trans can still be an emotionally wrenching experience. Especially when someone is young, and doesn’t yet have a way of expressing who they are.

“I’ve known in my heart that I’m a woman since I was seven years old,” Samantha says. “But even knowing it, I didn’t have a word to describe it. I didn’t have a way of explaining how I felt. It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I tried to explain it to my mom. I failed horribly and she told me, ‘No, boys don’t think that way. You’ll get over it.’ And she didn’t mean any harm by that. Today she still feels guilt that she didn’t know. But neither did I. I didn’t have the words to explain it to her.”

Born in New York, raised in the Phoenix area, Samantha tried very hard to fit in as a boy and grow into a life as a man that would be fulfilling. She attended UArizona, earned a Bachelor of Arts in political science, and played trumpet all four years in the Pride of Arizona marching band. She also worked at Ritz Camera in the Tucson Mall before landing a job with Honeywell and moving back to the Valley of the Sun.

“I wanted to be married,” she reflects. “I wanted a wife. I wanted to have kids. And I did my best to push the other feelings down. I thought that I could ignore it. Part of the guilt I feel in my transition is losing my wife of 13 years in this process. I wish I could have had the words or the strength to tell her earlier on. But I thought I could beat it. That’s the environment I was in, where transitioning didn’t seem like a viable option.”

Samantha, living as a man, had a wife, four children, and a good job, but she was completely miserable. “The pain, what they call gender dysphoria — the incongruence of body and mind — got to the point where I couldn’t even function,” she reveals. “I was so depressed that I couldn’t get out of bed on the weekends. I could barely make it into work. I had no interests. I was just a lump, because I was so broken. It was so hard to have to live that life. And the stark reality is, I had a plan to end my life because it hurt too much to go on. I’ve hiked the Grand Canyon three times. The third time I did, I had every intention of not hiking back out of it. At the time, it seemed easier just to not go on than have to explain to my family, my kids, my job, everyone in my life that this is who I was.”

Coming out as transgender about three years ago and starting the transition was very difficult, despite meeting with acceptance from her immediate family. She says that her parents were accepting, but she recalls her mother saying, “‘You have to tell your sister. I have to have someone I can talk to about this.’ That’s fair. I agreed with her. So, the very next day, after work I drove to Tucson and met up with my sister. We went to this little sushi shop, had a nice dinner, and then I told her in the car. The first thing she said to me was that she always wanted a sister. There were still some growing pains with her, but she’s been extremely supportive and I’m thankful to have her in my life.”

Her parents and her sister even backed her up when another family member disinvited her from a wedding because she refused to dress as a man.

Of the life-changing conversation with her wife, Samantha says, “I wanted her. I was so in love with her. That was a real love, no matter what my identity was. Coming out to her was probably the most difficult thing in my entire life. It’s not easy to tell someone you’ve known for such a long time that you’ve been struggling for so long with this.”

Her marriage didn’t survive the transition, but she says her relationship with her children is better than ever. “I can finally be the parent that I needed to be for them. I’m free of what held me back for so long. What my life is today is immeasurably better than I ever could have imagined. When you’re racked with depression and you can’t even get out of bed, you can’t be a good parent. But now, the experiences I have with my kids, and being able to play with them all summer, help them with their homework, do LEGOs with them, help them build computers and learn programming — it’s everything I ever wanted out of life. It’s such a beautiful gift to be able to be here.”

Samantha has shared that gift with others by speaking to a church group, and the student organization GSA. “Basically it’s a club at middle schools and high schools across the world where LGBT students and their friends can come together and have a safe place to talk about topics,” she notes.

She also was the cover model for Curl: The Magazine for Curly-Haired Women, and related her story. And on a regular basis she hosts an online live trans TV show called Trans IRL. “We talk to trans individuals and trans allies about their experiences and their journeys and share hope and understanding,” she says.

For all the progress the world has made in transgender issues, Samantha shares that there is still is a long way to go. “It’s a volatile environment right now, where trans rights are still under so much attack.

“I’ve been denied health care because I’m trans. It’s a life-and-death situation that many of us face. It’s already scary enough to go to the ER in today’s world, but can you imagine being violently ill and going to the emergency department and the doctor won’t treat you because you happen to be transgender? That’s what this current government rollback is trying to accomplish; it would allow doctors the right to withhold treatment from a patient because they’re trans.”

Samantha believes that being visible will counteract prejudice by allowing everyone to see how much she is just like them. A dedicated runner and hiker (who says she loves to visit Mount Lemmon, and finish off with a stop at the Cookie Cabin), she may pass you on a trail. A gardener and computer programmer, you may run into her picking up plants at the nursery. Or you may see her at a transgender advocacy forum.

“It’s really hard to hate a person that you’ve sat down across a table from and had a conversation with,” she concludes. “It’s really hard to hate a person whose story you’ve read and you can see the humanity in them. I can’t tell you how many people who have heard my story, or the story of other trans individuals, and reached out to me and said, ‘I just never really understood until I knew somebody who was transgender.’ And every ally that’s out there is one more vote against having our rights taken from us. It’s really changing hearts and minds, one person at a time.”

Transportraits

The great American writer Ralph Ellison said, “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” We talked with some transgender persons with Tucson connections to learn about their journeys to becoming free.

A.J. FLICK

Identity comes in many forms, from inherited roles thrust upon generations, to genetic characteristics, to skills and activities practiced in life, to deeply imbedded ideas of one’s own self.

“Identity doesn’t have to be a static thing,” says Namoli Brennet, a famed folk singer and former Tucsonan. “Identity can be in transition, something happening to a lot of people throughout their lives.”

For a transgender person, sexual identity assigned at birth doesn’t match the gender with which they identify. Although some trans people have the desire and means to seek hormone therapy and surgery to transition, many who identify as trans do not.

A 2016 study by the Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of California- Los Angeles School of Law, ranked Arizona 12th in the nation for adults who identify as transgender.

“A lot of people have the blind assumption that they’ve never met a trans person,” says Dianne Fremont, a Phoenix native and University of Arizona student. “A lot of people think they can spot a trans person a mile away. But chances are, you’ve met trans people and didn’t even notice. We’re out there in the community.”

Fremont’s transition from childhood boy to adult woman began in high school.

“I came out in my freshman year,” reflects Fremont, who requested a pseudonym to protect her identity. “I disappeared for the summer with my family. In my sophomore year, I came back as me, female, the whole nine yards. It was well received. It was a little rocky, here and there, but that’s to be expected. By the time I was in my junior year, it was a non-issue.”

The experiences of many students aren’t as smooth as those Fremont had. According to the GLSEN National School Climate Survey, which tracks experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer youths, nearly 60 percent of LGBTQ students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, more than 44 percent because of their gender expression and 35 percent because of their gender.

Pima County School Superintendent Dustin Williams became aware of the challenges involving students and gender issues while he was assistant director of the Native American charter school Ha:san Preparatory & Leadership School.

“There was a small group of students who identified as transgender and they chose bathrooms depending on however they identified,” Williams explains. “There were never any issues other than those caused by the adults. The students were always most welcoming.”

As an elected official, Williams says he places student safety as a high priority.

“Regardless of how a student identifies, the most important aspect is that a school makes sure the students feel safe,” says Williams, a native Tucsonan. “We know a large percentage — around 75 percent — of transgender students feel unsafe. It could be hostility, harassment or being denied opportunities.”

It helps that awareness and prevention of bullying has grown from the days of old, when the schoolyard bully reigned, Williams notes.

“I can’t emphasize enough the importance of working together and being a unified front regardless of a student’s identity path. We want to ensure every student has the opportunity to access an amazing education and feel comfortable with who they are, with no limitations.”

Williams admits that Pima County’s reputation as a liberal base may make it easier for students to live as they want to in the community. Adults are key in making a safer world for trans students, he stresses.

“They can either help or hinder the process. Students are very accepting, but they watch the direction they get from adults. We’re not here to convince anyone, one way or another, what’s right or wrong, but to convince the community to have the students’ best interest at heart so they get the best education possible.”

Beyond the schools, Tucson has a reputation for accepting the diversity of people in the community, which makes being trans here easier.

“Tucson feels special,” observes Brennet. “It really is. I moved there in grad school and at first, I said, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing here?’ I didn’t know anything about it. But Tucson is great. It’s a place where people value and respect self-expression. It’s not only ‘I accept that you’re trans. I accept that you’re queer or whatever.’ It’s ‘I respect the courage to be who you are.’”

Now living in Iowa, Brennet became a popular artist in the Tucson music scene and was ranked “among the best folk-rock artists in the U.S.” Her music was featured in the Emmy Award-winning documentary, Out in the Silence, about the struggle of a gay teen growing up in rural Pennsylvania. Brennet’s transition came when she was evolving as an artist in Tucson.

“I didn’t feel like a whole person,” she says. “I needed to explore the process to become a more realized version of myself.

Looking back, as an artist, I needed to be in a place where I was not filtering myself. If you’re a repressed person, you create repressed art. When you start opening up to give yourself more personal freedom, I think it gives your artistic side the same freedom.”

Tucson’s lively arts scene, centered on the Historic Fourth Avenue area, drew her in.

“As a trans woman walking down Fourth Avenue, I was not the most interesting person by any stretch,” she says, laughing. “There are so many colorful people in Tucson. At the time, I felt a lot of support. I saw people living out their truth pretty fearlessly and I thought, ‘OK, maybe I can do that, too.’ Tucson is a great, great place to make your transition.

“The arts community in Tucson is really collaborative and supportive,” she adds.

Tucson’s poet laureate, TC Tolbert, self-describes as a trans and genderqueer feminist, collaborator, mover and poet. Thanks to an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship awarded last year, Tolbert created a community-wide project called Trans/Space.

“For the purpose of this project, I’ve chosen to use the acronym TNBQ+, which stands for Trans, Non-binary, and/or Queer+, in an attempt to celebrate and highlight those identities that, even within the LGBTQ+ umbrella, often get overlooked or dismissed,” Tolbert says. TNBQ+ includes those who identify as trans, transgender, transsexual, genderqueer, gender nonconforming, genderfluid, intersex, agender, asexual, questioning and pansexual, Tolbert says.

Last fall, Tolbert held more than 30 TNBQ+ poetry workshops across Tucson that attracted more than 300 attendees. Participants read poems written by TNBQ+ poets and were guided in writing their own poems; they also were given a free book of TNBQ+ poetry from the mobile library Tolbert brought to each event.

Tolbert created the project to connect TNBQ+ and LGBTQ youths to the larger Tucson community, raise awareness outside the TNBQ+ and LGBTQ community about oppression they face and promote civic engagement with TNBQ+ and LGBTQ youths while fostering alliances with those outside their community.

“I hope to push back against local and systemic insistence that TNBQ+ people do not exist, while claiming the right of TNBQ+ people to take up space in a way that foregrounds the necessity, power and beauty of TNBQ+ voices,” Tolbert remarks.

Transgender Tucsonans also have a resource in the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance, which sponsors support groups and advocates for the equal treatment and opportunity for all transgender people through education and training. SAGA’s Arizona Transgender Workplace Project helps employers create more transgender-inclusive workplaces. In addition, SAGA maintains a database of transfriendly businesses, service providers, doctors and more. For those who are in transition, SAGA helps with updating official documents to reflect a new name and gender.

The University of Arizona established the Office of LGBTQ Affairs in 2007. Today*, the LGBTQ Resource Center serves students from its space in the Student Union, where students may study, eat lunch and socialize in a safe space. The Resource Center also serves faculty, staff, alumni, parents and guests of all gender identities and sexual orientations.

Fremont found camaraderie on the UA campus by joining Gamma Rho Lambda, the national social sorority for queer, trans, non-binary and allied students.

“It was refreshing to be around people who have had similar experiences to yours,” she says.

And she found love, with another trans student.

“We stumbled into one another watching a movie with people I live with in the hall,” she says. “Two weeks later, he asked me to a football game. It’s been almost two years now.”

There were awkward moments at first, because her partner was still in transition and they were viewed as a lesbian couple.

“It was hard on him,” she says. “But now that he’s no longer in transition, there are other issues, like I’m a little taller than he is!”

Fremont has no regrets about her journey into womanhood.

“Everybody was put on this Earth for a purpose,” she sums up. “I think my purpose was to have this extra journey.”

This story was written before sheltering in place procedures were implemented as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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