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B’Yancha Lawson and Riley Burns provide vital resources for trans Houstonians at UT Health.

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Communities thrive when its members look out for one another. Two Houston-based transgender leaders, B’Yancha Lawson and Riley Burns, understand the impact of giving back and empowering their community. The duo is now doing just that through their research work at the UT Health Science Center at Houston by drawing on their personal experiences to reach trans Houstonians in need. 

“I came to Houston to get into recovery,” Lawson, a trans woman, explains. “I completed rehab and then transitioned to a sober-living facility.” She credits two mentors for making her experience there so impactful. “I was under the leadership of coaches Jessica Yeager and Riley Burns. I admired what they did for the community; I felt comfortable [with them] and knew they were people I could trust. I was so inspired by them.”

B’Yancha Lawson

Lawson was tapped by Yeager to enroll in her research study at UT Health that focused on people living with HIV who had a past or current history of IV drug use such as heroin or other opiates. A chance introduction to a doctor on staff at UT Health set Lawson on her next path. “I asked if they needed a recovery coach for trans women. I had just finished my training to become a coach, so it was perfect timing. He said yes, and the next thing I knew, I was offered a position with the ‘I Am’ study, which is targeted at people who identify as transgender women and those on the nonbinary feminine spectrum,” Lawson explains. “The study aims to prevent members of these communities from contracting HIV. They receive health-navigation services [from peer coaches], linking them to resources they are lacking in life. We walk with them the whole way for about one-and-a-half years. After completing their screening they’ll do six sessions with me, where I make sure they’re taking their hormones, tracking side effects, and providing whatever else they need along the way.”

As for Burns, a trans man whose pronouns are “evolving,” research work with the Project Integra study at UT Health keeps him on the move. “I’m here to support my community and myself, so I became a recovery coach dealing with substance use. I train people to become coaches, and I speak on substance use and transgender issues on a daily basis.” 

This researcher knows from first-hand experience that trans folks typically turn to substance use due to a lack of feeling understood by others. “I was confused mentally and emotionally, so I got into using substances to cover up my pain. I was a cutter at one time. We can share our pain with others, but they can’t feel it. Trying to explain that at the age of seven was difficult, because I didn’t even understand it myself. I want to help others feel comfortable identifying as they are.

“Project Integra is a mobile unit that goes around the community—sex shops, apartments, gas stations, etc.—to help people who struggle with substance use,” Burns explains. “We offer free Suboxone, which is a medication that stops the withdrawal symptoms and physical pain of drug use. After the initial 26-week period on Suboxone, we connect them with resources in the community so they can continue to get the medication and not relapse. We also connect them with resources via other organizations around Houston [that provide] housing and behavioral counseling. We also offer STI and HIV testing in our 35-foot van.” 

Riley Burns

Burns emphasizes that Project Integra isn’t a one-and-done service. “We never stop having a connection with these people. They will always have a coach like me by their side. I’ve been where they are, and I understand the pain they’re going through.”

These deeply personal research projects are more than just jobs for the two passionate social workers. “I know the struggle for trans women,” Lawson says. “A lot of us don’t have families or financial services to help us get what we need. This work is something I hold dear to my heart. I’ve always had a passion for helping my community. Through the ‘I Am’ study, I can be there for them. I just want to see all of my sisters thrive and live life on their own terms, to their full potential.” 

Burns focuses on the next generation. “My mom always told me we have to look out for each other, because the one behind you is your future,” he says. “I try to treat others how I want to be treated. I know what it takes to lift yourself off the ground as a trans person with a substance-abuse issue. If I can’t pass on what I’ve learned along the way, then what good is it? If I can help save one person, then I know I’ve done my part for that day.”

For more info on these studies, visit iamstudy.org and sbmi.uth.edu/chsa/integra.htm. 

This article appears in the November 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Zachary McKenzie

Zachary McKenzie is a marketing professional and freelance writer in Houston, TX. He received his bachelor's degree from The University of Texas at Austin in 2014 and has lived in Houston since. Zachary is a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters and enjoys spending his free time with friends, exploring the richness and diversity of Houston.
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