Once upon a time, “AIDS” was a word that was feared by all, from the general population to health practitioners to emergency-service providers. Since the first AIDS case was diagnosed in 1981, more than 600,000 Americans have died of AIDS — more than all the U.S. combat deaths since the beginning of World War I.
The disease has fortunately been greatly destigmatized and brought under control, but there’s still much to be done. Although new medical treatments have helped many people living with HIV/AIDS to live longer, there is no cure. Just here in Philly, there are more than 30,000 people living with HIV. Philadelphians are being infected at five times the national average, and more than 50-percent higher than residents of New York City. Despite advances, it is still a serious threat to our communities, and many of our friends, family and neighbors struggling to live with HIV/AIDS are in desperate need of critical life services.
Fortunately, there’s help. AIDS Walk/Run Philly 5K is the region’s largest HIV/AIDS fundraiser and awareness event of the year, and raises funds for emergency financial assistance to people living with the disease and organizations providing HIV services in our communities. “Getting to Zero: Zero new infections, Zero deaths, Zero stigma” is the motto this year, and there’s still time for you to help.
I had a chance to FaceTime with the charming Séamus Egan Tyler, graphic designer with AIDS Fund. FYI, Tyler, who has the best laugh ever (and voices it frequently), would be my pick if I had to choose a boy crush.
PGN: So with a name like Séamus, I guess you’re from a big Italian family?
SET:[Laughs] Of course! Italian leprechauns! At least you pronounced it right. I’m surprised at how many people have never heard of the old Irish name. I thought there were more WWE fans out there.
PGN: Tell me a little about yourself. You’re a “Joisey” person?
SET: [Laughs] Yes, I was born and raised in South Joisey. I lived in Cherry Hill most of my life and moved to South Philly two years ago. I came here to go to art school and I’ve been working for the AIDS Fund for two years.
PGN: What was a favorite activity as a kid?
SET: There was a public library near our house and I would walk over and borrow as many comic books as I could carry! I loved to read and I was also involved in a lot of musical theater and stuff.
PGN: In this creepy age of social media, I was able to look at your mom’s Facebook page and she’s a big sports fan. You as well?
SET: Everyone but me. I was the more artistic one in the family. I was always drawing and painting, acting and singing.
PGN: Who was your favorite comic-book character?
SET: I mean, I loved Batman. I was convinced I was going to create the next Batman and it’s still in the realm of possibilities! I loved everything from melodramatic romance comics to superheroes to ’zines.
PGN: It seems there’s a new Marvel or DC movie or show every day.
SET: Yeah, as a younger person that’s what I was into but since moving into the city I’ve been more involved with the small-press community. I’ve been exposed to a community of makers, which is great.
PGN: You presented as female growing up. Was there pushback being a girl into comics? It can be a very misogynistic world.
SET: Not really. I was and continue to be a free spirit. So my transcendence of gender norms was perhaps not as alarming to people as it might have been with someone else. [Laughs] There weren’t too many scrutinous eyes looking at me.
PGN: Fun family memory?
SET: [Laughs] I don’t think a lot about my family these days! But summertime in Cape May was always fun growing up.
PGN: The last couple of years have been big ones for you.
SET: Yes! [Laughs] I have several story arcs! I moved to Philly, came out as trans in a Facebook post and found a partner! I’ve identified as genderqueer since about 16, and by the time I was a junior at Moore I realized, Yeah, this is going to be more of a thing than anticipated, so my senior year was about me feeling out myself as a trans person and a young person entering the world. Everyone wants a stronghold on their identity as they embark into the next stage of life. I was really fortunate to have good people at school. Moore is a predominantly women’s college, so I wasn’t sure how it was going to go over, but there weren’t any problems. I’m a pretty feminine transmasculine person so perhaps that helped!
PGN: How did your big Facebook announcement go over?
SET: Pretty well! Most people were supportive even if they didn’t understand non-binary genders. Like I said, I’m an effeminate person and I presented quite femininely throughout my life so it was not the typical narrative. [Laughs] But what is? There might have been a sliver of negativity, but I focus more on the overwhelming support.
PGN: And the family?
SET: Um, they’ve been kind of confused! It’s taking a little time for them to come around so I’m giving them a little distance while they work on it, but I make it out for family events. I have two gay uncles in Philly and of course my fabulous queer family of choice. I’ve been involved with the Radical Faeries, which was a big help, finding queer men expressing themselves in many different ways. A lot of non-binary people don’t even realize all the options open to them and then it’s like, “Oh wow! I can do that?” [Laughs] There have been many coming-outs for me! At 16 I was a straight girl into makeup and stuff, but I kind of felt more like a drag queen than a girl getting dressed up. So I always had that information about myself in the back of my head but I didn’t know how it applied. Then in college I realized, Oh, I’m not straight! Then, Oh, I’m not a girl!
PGN: Did you skip the lesbian phase?
SET: [Laughs] I had what I like to call my one lesbian summer. It was when I was head-deep in my feminist-theory classes and I was presenting as female. I dated this trans girl for a few months. It’s weird because I have a lot of gay connections in the family: that gay uncle and my mother’s brother who was gay and passed aways of AIDS when I was 2. Yet, when it came to trans people, the family was not about it. They were like, “Oh, trans people are, you know, xyz, whatever.” They just didn’t get it. At the time, I was working at Qdoba and I’d pretend I was at work to sneak over to my girlfriend’s house. So that was my lesbian summer. I wish it had been longer but at least I got a few good lesbian months in! Shortly after that, I really took stock of myself and wanted to identify as a non-binary queer person. It’s been uphill ever since!
PGN: You’ve been at the AIDS Fund for two years. What’s something you’ve learned?
SET: Growing up, my parents were tolerant, but not engaged with LGBT politics even though my uncle died of AIDS. So it was interesting learning about the whole network of support that exists in the city and all the resources that are available and those that aren’t.
PGN: It seems like a lot of millennials aren’t aware of the severity of the AIDS epidemic at its height or even now.
SET: Yes. Because of my uncle and my desire to learn more about him as I got older, I was pretty aware of the seriousness of the epidemic and its effect. And since then, I’ve learned how poverty and bigotry have had a profound effect on AIDS now.
PGN: Did you go to the walk last year?
SET: Yes! It was the first one for me and I consider it one of the best days of my life. To see so many people who cared about something that I cared so much about was really moving. To be able to contribute to the cause with my work was incredible. Working at the AIDS Fund was my first real job out of art school and as a trans person to have a full-time job where people love and respect you as you are is pretty amazing.
PGN: How would you describe the walk?
SET: It’s such a powerful day. There are people from all walks of life, all generations who come out to support the cause. There are 30 years of history there, from heartache to heroics, people power, love, loss, memories and strength. There’s still something of the stigma where people in society don’t want to talk about AIDS, but at the walk it’s an open topic. You want to remember the past and be a part of the future that’s moving to get us to zero.
PGN: What do you do for fun when not working?
SET: I’m a part of the performance-arts community. I’m a drag queen and I go by the name Ron Binary. Last year I participated in the Drag Wars and other competitions. It was a little scary because I didn’t know how the community would react, but I’ve received nothing but love. I even won the Valentine Miss Congeniality award! I also love to hear music around the city. Philly is one of the greatest places to find the DYI-type music scene. I don’t get to do it often, but when I can I like to disconnect from the plugged-in life and get lost in nature.
PGN: I understand you also teach?
SET: True, I work with Painting with a Twist in New Jersey doing BYOB painting classes. And I’ve also done work as a substitute teacher.
PGN: What are the best and worst moments as a sub?
SET: Best? I love seeing kids be creative and listening to their sense of humor. They’re just pure emotion and it’s cool to see them existing freely before they learn to suppress their emotions like the rest of us. I used to go into one school and the kids would exclaim, “You look just like Demi Lovato! Are you a rock star?” The worst experience was the week after the Pulse massacre. I was wearing a rainbow ribbon that I made to honor it and I had kids coming up and saying really homophobic things. It was right after I graduated and I really didn’t know how to navigate it. I know that most kids are just repeating things they’ve heard so it’s hard to reprimand or whatever, but there was one girl in particular who had some ugly things to say about the people at Pulse and I just wasn’t prepared to deal with it!
PGN: Tell me about your book.
SET: I studied graphic illustration in school and wrote a children’s book about a girl who finds a magician’s hat and travels through different dimensions. I’m hoping to do a queer-centric children’s book soon. Last summer I started a new comic book called “Tranpire” about a trans vampire. I was hoping to finish it this summer but I got involved in the drag world instead.
PGN: So are you single or shacked up?
SET: I have a partner. He’s a very nice boy and we’ve been dating for a year. I’m a polyamorous person but I‘ve been in that relationship for a while.
PGN: So how does one woo you?
SET: Oh my! Well, I’ve had people in the past who don’t have much going on flock to me like a moth to a flame trying to latch on to my creativity but I’m like, “No, you need to find your own flame and we can light things up together!” So I’m attracted to people who have their own creative personas.
PGN: Favorite holiday?
SET: It’s coming up. Halloween has always been my favorite, always. I love putting on disguises, scaring people and all the creepy things. [Laughs] I put up my decorations on Labor Day! I think the first book I even bought for myself was “Zombieland.” I was in first grade. My dream after I retire is to buy some farmland and build an amazing haunted house!
PGN: Is your birthday on Halloween?
SET: No! It just says that on Facebook. But it is my tranaversary this week!
PGN: Congrats. Ever experience anything supernatural?
SET: No! The closest was when we had that mini earthquake here a few years ago. At first I thought it was something otherworldly happening. Unfortunately, I have no psychic abilities. Sad, right?
PGN: What was Ron Binary’s best number?
SET: Drag Wars had a TV theme week and I did a BDSM “I Love Lucy” number. If you watch the show, Ricky spanks Lucy an awful lot!
PGN: What song/genre would people be surprised to find on your iPod?
SET: I sing a lot of punk and metal in my performances but people might be surprised to know that I listen to a lot of soft folksy music or old country music. Sufjan Stevens has been my jam this week.
PGN: Would you rather have laser vision or X-ray vision?
SET: X-ray vision so I could find my stuff! I’m always losing things.
PGN: First celebrity crush?
SET: Orlando Bloom as Legolas in “Lord of the Rings”! Oh my goodness. I had a big poster of his head in my bedroom.
PGN: He was pretty.
SET: Yes, I love the pretty boys with long hair.
PGN: A painting you’d like to enter?
SET: Oooh. It would be fabulous to go into a Hieronymus Bosch painting, like the “Garden of Earthly Delights,” and be amongst the strange and fantastical creatures. Alternatively, it might be cool to live in a Michael Hussar painting. He has a really dark style and his people are beautiful but grotesque, which would be cool.
PGN: Twisted! Will I see you at the walk?
SET: Most definitely, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
For more information about AIDS Walk Philly, visit www.aidswalkphilly.org.