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This Positive Life: An Interview With Rafael Abadia

September 15, 2011

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What would you advise others to do, when they're disclosing their status to their family or loved ones?

It's really individualized; I've met so many people in different situations. I've known of people with families that completely shunned them and don't speak to them anymore. So I'm very blessed to come from a very loving family. It's easy for me to tell everyone, because I have that support.

What I recommend someone do is to seek some professional help. See a therapist, a counselor, who can sit down and really guide you and prepare you for whatever happens. You need to be ready to expose yourself when you tell someone about your HIV status, because people react differently. I've even lost friends, people who I thought were my friends, but once they knew of my diagnosis they completely stopped talking to me -- even within the gay community, which was my biggest shock. It's sad, but it happens. People show their true colors.

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In the Latino community as you understand it, in your opinion, which do you think has bigger stigma associated with it: being gay, or being HIV positive?

I think being gay carries the most stigma of the two. I live my life as an openly gay man. Both in New York where I used to live and here in Florida, where I live now, I meet other gay Latinos and they're completely in the closet, because they're afraid of what's going to happen with their jobs or things of that nature. It's hard for me to interact sometimes. If I want to date someone, the fact that I'm open scares some people away.

There's still so much stigma within the Latino community, especially around who's "gay" and who isn't. There are many men out there having sex with men who would never consider themselves gay. If they're the top, the one doing the penetration, to them, that doesn't take away their manhood, so they're not gay. "Gay" is the bottom -- being the one who receives. Then, if a man gives another man a blowjob, the one giving the blowjob is the gay guy, not the other one. There are so many justifications. But, again, they're having intimate sexual encounters, and then they're going back to their wives or girlfriends. It's unfortunate, but it's something that does happen.

I was born in New York, but I was raised in Puerto Rico. I've never been in the closet. [laughs] I've always been gay. I always knew. I've never had a sexual relationship with a woman. But, I remember some of the guys that I was with, even if we were kissing and being intimate, in their heads, they were still straight. It's very cultural. And there are differences within the Hispanic community, based on where people come from. I've seen some Central Americans and South Americans who have to refuse even the notion that they're gay, because otherwise they would not be accepted.

How do you think that feeds into the HIV pandemic and contributes to stigma?

That's where that macho mentality comes in. I remember when I was in college in Puerto Rico, men would brag about how many sexual encounters they'd had with all these women. That would make them big macho: to have as many partners as they liked.

Years ago, when I used to go to the gay bars in Puerto Rico, a lot of married men would go there. One excuse I used to hear was that other guys would do things that their wives or girlfriends wouldn't do. I think it's only an excuse. I don't buy that. They just want to explore their feelings or whatever.

How have you personally dealt with the stigma associated with being HIV positive? Do you have any interesting stories?

I'm very up front about it, because I do believe, not only with HIV but also with being gay, in order for people to break that stigma, we need to be out there. So many times people have told me, "You're not like other gay people"; or, "I thought people with AIDS were like this or that"; or, "You don't look sick." That's chipping into that stigma, and I think we really need to do that.

My neighbors here say, "For a gay guy, you're a cool guy." [laughs] And they think that's a compliment! For them it is a compliment. But I say, "Well, you know, what do you expect?"

I have a friend I met here. He calls himself a "redneck." He and I have breakfast every once in a while. He's a straight guy. He loves women and brags about it. Because of the work that I volunteer for, I get him free condoms, and lubes, and all that information. [laughs] He jokes and says, "You know, I never had a fag friend before." I've just learned to tighten my lips a little and not say too much. But believe it or not, it's breaking the stigma that he had about gay men. He says, "Yeah, for a gay man, you're a cool guy"; I say, "For a redneck, so are you." [laughs]

Regarding your HIV status: What do you think has given you the strength to come out about it?

Good question! [laughs] The first couple of years were very difficult. This was before protease inhibitors really came out. I remember going to support groups and therapists, preparing to die. Therapy back then was preparation for getting sick and then dying.

I had three or four very close calls. I had CMV [cytomegalovirus] retinitis in my right eye. I lost the vision out of one eye. I had kidney problems, liver problems. I would joke that I kept "waking up." I remember, there was a Star Trek movie that was being made, and I remember joking and saying, "I wanna live to at least see that movie!" Then the Star Wars movies started, and I said, "You know something? I'm making projections into the future! If I'm gonna do that, then let me just live my life openly, and show people that getting a diagnosis is hard in the beginning, but you just strap on your boots." It's a new journey.

I'm not very religious, but I like to think I'm very spiritual. I believe things are given to us to work with. I love what I do, advocating for services for people living with HIV/AIDS -- people who are too afraid or too timid to advocate for themselves. I get joy out of that. So it's what you make of it.

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This article was provided by TheBody.com.
 
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