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This Positive Life: An Interview With HIV Prevention Activist Jose Ramirez

August 11, 2010

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Tip, Tricks and Challenges From the Frontlines of HIV Prevention

What kind of work did you do before your diagnosis, and how did you get involved in HIV work and prevention work with young people?

I had started doing work around immigrant issues and farm workers' rights and youth rights and Latino rights and then of course I did queer stuff, and got hooked up with organizations like the North Carolina Lambda Youth Network, El Centro Hispano in North Carolina. I was starting to do activism work from the get go. As soon as I found out I was positive, I pushed myself to becoming an activist because I wanted to do it. I was like, "I've got to educate my community. I've got to let people know what's going on." It was around that time that I remember watching The Real World, when Pedro was on it. I think he was kind of an influence on me too, because I was like, "He was positive. He was Latino. He spoke about it. I can do that too."

How did you go from the other kinds of activism that you were doing, like immigrants' rights and workers' rights and queer community work, into doing HIV prevention work specifically?

In everything I did, there was an HIV component to it. Working on immigrants' rights, they also needed to know about healthy relationships, safe sex, HIV/AIDS. I talk a lot about how, if you're an immigrant and you can't get work, a lot of young people -- or people in general -- turn to commercial sex work. You need to talk to people about HIV/AIDS and how to protect themselves. It all comes together. It all plays a role.

Do you work for an organization now?

Yes. It's called La Clínica del Pueblo. I work with a project there called Mpoderate, which stands for "empowerment." It's an HIV/AIDS prevention program for queer Latino immigrant youth in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. The way we do our stuff is really cool, because we first talk about the issues that they're having. You have to talk about their issues before talking about HIV/AIDS.

If you're an immigrant youth, I can't just be like, "I want you to protect yourself," because that's not what they're worried about. Instead I'm like, "What's making you not protect yourself? Are you working the streets? Are you having unprotected sex with your partner, because he might not like using condoms and he might beat you if you ask him to use condoms because to him, that means you think he's cheating on you?" So looking at those issues first and then starting to talk about HIV and how to protect yourself and stay HIV free, and how to put that into your relationship. It's always about meeting them first where they're at, and then slowly moving into talking about HIV/AIDS and the risks.

Can you walk us through an average day or night out at work for you?

We're a drop-in center, so we have young people here. I come in, I talk to my young people, I chill with them for a little bit. Then I work on what I have to do, whether it's planning a health fair or another event. Every Thursday, I have "M groups," which are groups for young gay Latinos to come. I could be preparing or leading a workshop. Last week I did a workshop around how self-esteem looks among gay Latino youth. Preparing our outreach events that go on throughout the week -- where we're out at the club handing out condoms, talking to young people about STDs, HIV, our resources that we have, getting them tested. Running around throughout the city, meeting new young people; and then probably getting home late.

I have young people always calling me: "This is what's going on. What can I do?" Or, "I'm having a bad day." I take a lot of time to meet their needs.

A lot of times, young people might not know about our center, might not have time to come to the center, so we want for them also to get all the information they need. That's why I and our peer educators are out there. We go to the clubs, we go to the cruising parks, and now that the summer's coming up, we're at the cruising parks all the time.

"We meet young people and ... when we come back two to three weeks later, they're like, 'Yeah, I tried what you told me, how to put on a condom with my mouth and it worked.' ... You hear all this stuff that our peer educators are telling their community, and they're actually using it."

We meet young people and we let them know, "Hey, it's cool to cruise. Do what you got to do. But be safe and stay STD and HIV free and these are the ways you can do it. Oh hey, let me teach you how to suck dick with a condom on." They don't have that information.

When we come back two to three weeks later, they're like, "Yeah, I tried what you told me, how to put on a condom with my mouth and it worked," or, "I used a female condom and he liked it because he didn't have to put on a condom. He told me he felt free." You hear all this stuff that our peer educators are telling their community, and they're actually using it. It's cool to see that and to hear that.

You said that you talk to guys about using female condoms when they have sex with other men. Can you talk a little bit about that? I don't think that's something that a lot of people know about.

I'm a big advocate of female condoms for bottoms [receptive partners in anal sex]. It gives the bottom the opportunity to be empowered because, a lot of times, as a bottom, you're not empowered. Once the condom's in, you sometimes don't even have to bring up the conversation of using a condom, because you already have a condom on. A lot of times, people are just trying to bust a nut. That whole conversation -- "Let's wear a condom. Let me put the condom on. Let me put it back on" -- it takes time, and sometimes it takes the sexiness out of it too.

All my young people say, "I had it in. Once they went in, they were surprised. They were like, 'What do you have?' I was like, 'I have the condom on.' They were like, 'Oh cool.'" It's kind of erotic, because it's already there and you don't even have to bring that conversation about a condom up. Like bah, straight to the point.

You're being safe and you're protecting that other person too. That other person's like, "Wow. I didn't know you could do this. And this feels good and I want to do this again."

What do you think are the biggest challenges that you face in your work?

A lot of people are on survival mode, so sometimes talking about condoms, that person's like, "Whatever." So, a big challenge is figuring out new ways for people to negotiate safe sex -- making the condom more sexy, more fun.

Once again, if you're undocumented and you have a client who's going to pay you at least $200 more to have unprotected sex, and you need that $200, you're going to take it. Because I've been in that situation -- you're going to take it. So it's finding ways, like, "OK so, let's see how, next time, you can actually negotiate safe sex -- to make it more sexy, more erotic, including the condom?"

Another thing is drugs -- hardcore drugs like crystal meth, ecstasy and G. I see a lot of young people out here starting to use crystal meth and other drugs, especially immigrants who have never been introduced to it. It's scary because, once you're on hard drugs, you're not going to want to use condoms or think about using condoms. So that's another important thing that I tell guys too. "If you're going to start partying and playing [PNP-ing, or mixing crystal meth use and sex] -- before you start PNP-ing, why don't you try putting on the female condom? You can have it up in you for a good while, so at least that way you're lowering your risk." I have had a couple of young people who say, "Yeah, that's what I do before I get high. I go ahead and I put it in and I know I'm going to be all right."

What do you think would have to happen in the world -- not even in the world of HIV prevention, but in general or in the lives of the people that you work with -- to make those kinds of challenges go away?

One thing, of course, is immigration reform -- finding ways for young people and people who are undocumented to get documented so they don't have to put their lives at risk.

Educating people about all the different kind of condoms there are. Sometimes they just get so used to what we hand them that they really don't take the opportunity to go online or go out to the sex stores and actually find different condoms and try ones that might work better for them.

I also think the whole politics around HIV/AIDS has to change. I think a lot of people nowadays who are in the field are just in it just because it's a good paycheck, or it's any paycheck. I think you really need to care about the people in the community and really care about the issue and not see it as just a job, because I know I don't. I see it as a change that I'm trying to make in my community, a change that I want.

And sometimes it's just about which organization is going to get more money. People and organizations aren't collaborating with each other, not sharing information, they're not really working as a community.

I feel that's what needs to happen: All the HIV/AIDS organizations need to work as a community, need to stop thinking about "Where's the funding" or "Who's going to get the funding" -- because it's not about the funding. It's about what changes can we make, because you don't need money to make changes sometimes. You can just do it on your own, the way the Civil Rights Movement and all those other kinds of movements did. They were really grassroots. The HIV movement is not as grassroots. I'm like, "No, no, no, no. We need to be in the community. We need to be grassroots. Who cares about the money? Let's see what we can do."

Was there a moment or an event that you can identify at which point you realized that you were an activist? Can you remember when you said to yourself for the first time, "Activism is part of my identity -- this is me from now on"?

Yeah, I think my first LLEGO conference. [Editor's note: LLEGO, the National Latino/a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Organization, used to host an annual conference for Latino LGBT advocates. The organization folded in 2004.] They had an HIV/AIDS conference in New York, and I met so many Latinos that were positive and Latinos who were in the HIV/AIDS field. It was like, "Oh my God. This is me. All these people are doing what I want to do and this is what I'm going to do, but better -- or I'm going to try and make it better. I'm going to see how I can network."

Every time I walk into the center too -- I'm like, "Damn. I'm making change. There's going to be change."

What do you think doing this kind of work has taught you?

It's taught me to be able to work with multiple people in the community. It taught me a lot about different organizations and how people actually run. A lot of medical terms too. It's taught me how the HIV/AIDS field works, as far as treatment.

It also makes me a stronger person, because of all the information that I get. A lot of people that I work with have master's degrees in public health and bachelor's degrees in blah blah blah. And I'm like, "I have a high school diploma." All this information that I get is like school for me. I feel like, "Wow. I just learned something that maybe you have to go to school for." Because I'm not a "school person."

You're living with HIV, you work in HIV, you talk about HIV all day, every day, it seems. Do you ever get sick and tired of it? Do you ever want a "break" from HIV?

Yeah. [Laughs.] Of course, I think we all do -- just that, "Ugh. Why is this going on?" But it's brief moments. And then it's like whatever. It goes on, because it's so much a part of me. If I do want to take a little vacation, I just go away for a week and then I'm back and rejuvenated and ready to go.

I think what I get tired of more is the fakeness in the movement -- the fake people, and people not collaborating. How the hell are we supposed to change anything if people who are working in the field aren't acting right, aren't doing what they're supposed to be doing, and are more worried about image and fun than about community and the people they're helping out in the community? That ticks me off.

I get ticked off especially when funding is cut for programs. I'm like, "Why are you doing that? We want to stop the spread of HIV, but yet you're cutting funding for people. You're cutting funding for projects and programs." In a way, the government and other funders are doing it to us. They don't want us to be educated about HIV/AIDS. And I don't think that's right.

Safer, Healthier, Sexier Sex: Even More Tips and Tricks

What are your hopes for the next generation of young, gay men as they're facing HIV risks, and what are your fears for them?

"There's so much sex out there, but yet when you want to go into schools and talk about it, they're like, 'Oh no. We're only going to preach abstinence.' I'm like, 'You're going to preach what? Are you not listening to the music? Are you not watching TV?'"

My hopes are that more young people will use condoms, talk about HIV/AIDS and do more things in the community to spread the word about HIV/AIDS and safer sex.

Media nowadays really is messing it up for young people. And when I say media, I mean you can watch Shrek, or anything, and there are already messages about sex in it. Music, there's messages about sex in it. TV, there's messages about sex in it. Commercials, magazines. There's so much sex out there, but yet when you want to go into schools and talk about it, they're like, "Oh no. We're only going to preach abstinence." I'm like, "You're going to preach what? Are you not listening to the music? Are you not watching TV?" Everything is sex, sex, sex. And I think people are throwing out so much sex that there aren't messages about safer sex.

Songs don't talk about safer sex. Songs don't talk about using condoms and how cool they are. It makes me mad that people don't want to talk about sex, but yet it's thrown at you, and since we're not having these conversations about having healthy sex, it's going to get worse.

When I hear young people, they're like, "Yeah, you know, I had sex with her or him." So I'm like, "How was it? Did you like it?" "Nah, I was just trying to bust a nut." I ask all these young people, "Do you know what an orgasm is? Did you do this or that?" They don't even know how to really have sex. I talk to females and gay guys. I'm like, "Was it pleasurable for you?" They're like, "It was all right, but I don't really know what I was supposed to be looking for or feeling." That's not OK -- not being really intimate, sometimes not even kissing. It's just like, wham, bam, thank you ma'am. There's nothing else to it.

I'll ask them, "Did you guys use a condom?" "Nah, we didn't have one." I'm like, "Well, why didn't you two masturbate together?" "We can't do that!" I'm like, "What do you mean you can't do that? You can dip it in someone, but you can't masturbate together?"

It seems like there's not very much creativity out there.

There isn't. It's just like, go in, go out and you're done. You know it's not about all the things you can do: "When you're going to give someone head, why don't you use a dental dam or a condom with whipped cream or jelly? Why don't you put toothpaste on the condom when you give head, because that's going to create fresh breath for you and cause a warm sensation on the penis?" All those are things that people should know to have safer sex, but the information's not out there for them.

We also do workshops here at the center on how to have erotic safe sex.

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This article was provided by TheBody. It is a part of the publication This Positive Life.
See Also
HIV & Me: A Guide to Living With HIV for Hispanics
The Body en Español
More Personal Accounts of HIV in the U.S. Latino Community


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