Bree Rowe doesn't just work for a local non-profit, whose name they can’t disclose, providing a desperately needed syringe service for IV drug users. They also go out at night to popular LGBTQ+ nightspots and do anonymous HIV testing. It’s work they are passionate about, and Rowe considers it a mission of redemption of sorts.
In 2013, Rowe was an IV drug user — heroin was their drug of choice. After Rowe was arrested for doing drugs in front of their four children, they lost custody of them and went to prison. That was Christmas, the day Rowe was at their lowest. It’s also the day they consider their sobriety date.
Rowe had lost everything but hope; their children kept them going. They were told by the authorities that they would never get their kids back, something Rowe refused to believe.
“I had a strong maternal instinct that drove me to prove people wrong,” they said. “I got my kids back on July 17, 2015. From my incarceration date until that day, I had a ferocious need to raise my children.”
Despite what anyone thought about them or their past parenting, Rowe was adamant about that. “I knew that my kids' best place to be was with me. … I refused to believe, or even manifest, that my kids were better off anywhere but with me.”
Rowe was incarcerated for seven months and away from their children for almost two years.
“After 569 days of separation, my children returned home to their father and me,” they said. “We are a part of the few parents that successfully reunify despite a system set up against us.”
With their children, and in sobriety, Rowe found a new mission. In 2020, with seven years of sobriety under their belt, Rowe started giving back. Initially, they worked at an inpatient rehab center that specialized in detoxing pregnant women.
“It was really cool to work there and be able to share my story of successfully weaning off drugs and having three children who were addicted when born and needed medical detox,” they said.
After their incarceration, Rowe, who thought they were straight, decided to divorce their husband and came out as genderqueer. “I was in a very heteronormative marriage,” they explained. “But when it came to my desires for a relationship, I would have those moments of reflection of what my life would look like in five years. And it was with a wife in queer community. I knew if I wanted to stay sober and stay well in my mental health, I needed to be authentic in that space.”
Today, between their kids, their girlfriend and two rescue pups, Rowe said they feel fulfilled.
“My girlfriend taught me this new softer way of love that I’d never experienced before,” Rowe said. “Experiencing queer joy is something I never experienced.”
For Rowe, queer joy is "the smile I see on every queer face. When you go to a queer bar and see acceptance, see everyone laughing and dancing and the vibration of the room is completely different from anything else, that’s queer joy.”
They said they experience some of this through their work while testing for HIV at various places in metro Detroit, including Menjo's, adding that it's "one of the greatest experiences in my professional work of disease prevention and AIDS prevention.”
Rowe does this work through a grant with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The testing is completely confidential. “I don’t even ask your name,” they said. “I keep it as confidential as possible. Judgment, discrimination, bias … just a lack of safety overall in the health care setting, I want none of those to exist when I’m providing services.”
Even when they have to tell someone that they tested positive, Rowe finds purpose during what can be a difficult exchange.
“I honor that space that I create with people when they’re learning something that is really life-changing,” said Rowe. “I validate that real feeling of grief, fear and really not knowing what that looks like. They hear it, and they connect it with death and fear. It’s still very difficult to get this diagnosis.”
As for their day job, Rowe is equally as passionate about the syringe service she provides. “Syringe sharing is very common, and the number one reason that Hepatitis C has been on the rise,” they said. “That contributes to HIV as well. My [daytime] work is constantly intersecting between drug use, harm reduction and making sure that people have Narcan, which is a passion of mine.”
Rowe said their job is to observe people who use drugs as they go through early recovery or mental health services. Helping them come out on the other side, like they have, is gratifying.
“I lost everything,” Rowe said. “I thought there were other ways that I could have been helped, instead of taking my children away from me and putting them in a stranger’s home. There were better options. That’s a huge part of what catapulted me into these spaces — to help people find the best options.”