This Positive Life: An Interview With HIV Prevention Activist Jose Ramirez
August 11, 2010
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Who's the first person that you told that you had HIV?
My family, actually. The school had to set up a meeting with my mom. My mom was the one I told, and my brothers. We were all in a circle and the doctor was there and I told my mom that I was positive.
How did she react?
She was shocked and sad and really worried. My mom has lupus, so her thing was, "I'm really sick. Who's going to take care of you if you're going to get sick?" And I was like, "That's not going to happen. Don't worry. I'll be all right."
When you said that you knew you were going to be all right, did you feel that as well, or were you saying it more to comfort your mom?
Both. I was still confused, but I knew I was going to be all right.
Who else in your family was there at this meeting at school?
How many brothers?
My brother Jimmy -- he's about two years younger than me -- and my little brother. My little brother was about eight.
Did they know what HIV was when they heard about your diagnosis?
No, they didn't really know what it was. I had to explain it to them. And I still do. We talked about using razors and toothbrushes and all that kind of stuff. The doctor wanted me to let them know, because we were all boys, that we shouldn't use the same razors and the same toothbrushes because of the blood, and possibly transmitting the virus. If I got a cut, what to watch out for -- basically, the things you need to tell family about when you're positive that they need to know.
How soon after that did you start telling other people?
Then I told my best friend Jecenia. I told her inside the senior lounge, I remember, with another nurse there. A couple of days after I told my family, I started telling people that I trusted.
How did your friend react?
She was shocked but then she was like, "I'm going to support you." She was the one in the film [The Other City]. She was really supportive. And she's always been really supportive. I think we support each other a lot. She's always been there.
It sounds like you had a lot of support from people at your high school. Where were you living and what was your high school at this time?
My high school was in Durham, North Carolina. It was Southern Durham High.
Did you feel really supported by the nurse and the other people around you at school, or do you think they were just doing their jobs?
I felt supported. I knew they were supporting me, so I felt good about that.
Nowadays, how do you decide whether you're going to tell somebody that you have HIV?
I just tell everybody. It's a part of me. It's like, "Hi, my name's Jose. I'm HIV positive." Because of my tattoo -- it's a red ribbon on the side of my neck -- people are like, "What's up with the red ribbon?" And I'm like, "Oh, it's the HIV/AIDS symbol." They're like, "Why do you have that?" "Because I'm positive."
When did you get the tattoo?
In 2007, I think it was.
Have your family and friendship relationships changed at all since you told them that you were positive?
My family's supportive. They ask questions. They support me, but we really don't talk about it. It's kind of funny. They know it's there. They know that I'm positive. They know that I'm gay. They know the work that I do. We have little conversations about it, but it's just a part of me, so they know.
It sounds as if you are basically out as HIV positive to everybody that you know. Have you ever told someone you were HIV positive and gotten a response that was particularly supportive, and made you feel like it was absolutely the right choice to tell them?
When I talk to young people, they're like, "Oh wow. You don't look like you're positive. You look fine. And thank you, because that makes me want to think, the next time I jump into the bed with somebody, to really ask questions."
Most people are shocked. When I tell them how long I've been positive, they're like, "Wow, that's a long time." But I think when I do testing, people are grateful when I tell them, because when they come out of it, they really think about, "Hey, maybe next time I jump into bed with someone, I should ask them, 'Hey, have you been tested? Are you positive? Have you ever had an STD [sexually transmitted disease] before?'"
I let people know, "Those are things you need to ask people. A lot of times, people don't ask, 'Are you HIV positive?'" Sometimes, if you're not going to ask, people who are positive are not going to tell. I know that because I have a lot of friends who are like, "Yeah, I don't tell anybody unless they ask. Maybe if they asked, I would probably tell them. But they don't ask, so that means they don't really care." And I'm like, "No, that's not the way it should be."
I don't like to argue. I just understand both parties. But that's why I always tell people, "If you're negative, please, it's important to ask people, 'Are you positive? Have you been tested?' If they've never been tested, that should click in your head: Maybe I should be having safe sex with this person because they've never been tested for HIV or STDs."
Have you ever told someone you're positive and had them react very negatively in response?
Oh, yes. Not negatively, but shocked and scared and nervous. Another guy rejected me. He was like, "I can't deal with this. I can't be with you." Yes, it hurt, but I also understand that people have the right to feel how they want to feel and they probably just don't understand. If you just educate them a little bit more, they might not change the way they're feeling, but at least they know a little bit more about the virus and how it can be transmitted, and they probably feel a little bit more comfortable.
Are you in a relationship now?
Yes, I am.
How long has that been going on?
Two weeks. [Laughs.] Yes, it's a new one. And he's negative. He's a little bit younger than I am. He's 23. It's really funny because he told me the other day, "I never really thought I could be with you. I was really worried and really scared. And my friends were really worried and really scared for me." But he was like, "You know, just talking to you and listening to you and you educating me, I feel more comfortable. And I know that as long as we do everything safe that I'm going to be safe."
He asks a lot of questions, especially when it comes to being intimate, things that we can and can't do. So it's a lot of education on my part, which I don't mind. And to me, I feel it's really cool because he wants to know.
Sometimes I see it as, yes, he might be taking a risk, because you never know what can happen, you know? There might be a point where we might have unprotected sex because we both feel like it's something we want to do. But that's always putting him at risk too for HIV.
I think it happens a lot in couples when one partner is negative and the other one is positive. After you've been with someone for a while, you start loving them and your thoughts about that person change. You think you're going to be with that person for a long time. So it's like you don't care about that risk of HIV, because you care so much about this person, you want to be so much a part of this person, that it's a risk that a lot of people take.
I have these conversations with a lot of my friends who are positive and are in relationships with negative men, so I know I'm not alone. I know there are a lot of people who have to deal with that. Like, "OK, what happens after three years of being together and we've always used condoms, to a point where we don't want to use condoms? What are the steps from there?"
In your experience, or in the experience of folks that you've talked to, what are the steps once you get to a point where you're like, "We're in a relationship. We want to have unprotected sex." What happens next?
I think it's a lot of communication, talking about the risks, a lot about getting tested and just also telling that person, "Look, this is what I'm going through. This is what I've gone through since I've been positive. Are you willing to go through this? Do you want to go through this? What happens if we break up and you do become positive? Are you going to blame me? How can I still be of help?"
It's very hard, but it's so funny because you have those conversations but you really don't think about it until actually the breakup happens or that other person becomes positive. So yes, it's kind of like it's really hard because I know some people are like, "Well, why would you do that?" But I feel like unless you've been in that situation, you really can't understand.
Through your HIV prevention work, do you ever talk to "veterans," or long-time HIV survivors, about their thoughts about safer sex? What are the generational differences as far as thinking and talking about safer sex and risk?
I've talked to some older folks who are like, "Yeah, I understand where you're coming from. Me and my partner went through that." Or, "An ex-partner of mine, we went through that." But I think times have changed and HIV/AIDS has changed. You get people who are just shocked: "Why would you put a person in that situation?" But if you and that person have that agreement and you're ready to take that step, then I think people should respect that.
You can't really change people's decisions. If they're going to do it, they're going to do it. The same way, if they're going to have unprotected sex, they're going to have unprotected sex. I tell people, "Every time you have unprotected sex, you're taking a risk. Are you willing to deal with the consequences of that risk? If you are, then don't bitch and complain and don't moan and groan after you find out, because you took that risk and you sat down with that person. You knew the consequences. So if you're not willing to deal with them, then you shouldn't take that step."
You said before that times have changed and HIV/AIDS has changed. How so?
I think, especially among the young people, it's not out there, like back in the days. I hear stories, like, "My friends were dying left and right" -- a really traumatic time in HIV. And I think HIV now is like, "OK, you have HIV." People still get a little traumatized about it, but from what I see when I'm in the community, most people are not like, "Oh my God, what's wrong with you?"
I feel like young people know so much about HIV that it's boring them. It's like, "Yeah, whatever." They know it's there and they know you're supposed to use condoms, but I don't think they know how to use condoms properly. And they don't really know how to have safe sex.
Prevention should be more about HIV and safe sex. What is safe sex? How do you have safe sex? How do you make a condom more intimate and more sexy? A lot of young people are just like, "Oh, the condom's boring." I ask my young people, "Why is it boring? What's so boring about the condom?" "Well, I don't like the feel and, you know, it doesn't feel right." But I'm like, "Have you tried these other condoms? A lot of people don't know about these condoms out there. Or have you tried the female condom? Or have you tried this? When you're giving head, have you tried putting on a condom and then putting toothpaste on the condom?" Giving them ideas. They don't get messages about safe sex. They just get, "Oh, use a condom." But how am I supposed to use a condom? What if the condom doesn't feel right? What am I supposed to do?
I think the message that we should be putting out there is how to have safe sex. Another thing that kind of sucks is that a lot of people don't come out and talk about being positive. If there were more people who came out and said, "Yes, I'm positive," and there were different faces on HIV, you know, people would be like, "These people all look normal. They all look healthy. I really do need to start using a condom. I really do need to get myself tested." I feel like people should start coming out more and talking about their status and not hiding as much, because, in the community, there are more accepting people than we actually think. It's just about educating them. They're like, "OK that's cool. I just want to know what's up."
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