This Positive Life: An Interview With HIV Prevention Activist Jose Ramirez
August 11, 2010
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How old were you when you first realized you were gay?
I think I was five or six. I was always attracted to boys, always liked boys and felt butterflies in my stomach for boys. I always knew, I think. When I had my first experience with my consent, with my first guy, I was like, "Yeah, this is what I like. This is what I want."
How old were you then?
About 16. I had sex with a couple of females before that too, because I was like, "Let me see," but I didn't like it.
It's not because I was raped that I like boys. It's because I actually like boys.
It sounds like you've known for most of your life that you were gay, but who was the first person that you actually told that you were gay?
I don't even know. I think my father, because he found me with one of his workers -- he had a painting company. He found out about us, so I think he was the first one that I said, "Yeah, I'm gay" to. Then I came out to my family. This was even before I was positive -- I was about 15 when I came out.
How did your father react when he found you with someone he worked with?
He found out through a friend and then he asked me and I told him, "Yes." At that point, I was living with him and he put all my things in two trash bags. He was like, "I'm taking you to your mom's. I'm not going to have a faggot as a son. She's going to have to deal with you. I'm not going to deal with this." He drove me to North Carolina and dropped me off.
He lived in Virginia at the time?
Was it at this the point that you told your mom you were gay?
Yes, I told her a little while after. First I stayed quiet and then I was like, "OK, I'm gay." They weren't really accepting, so at that time I also tried to commit suicide.
Social Services got involved. After that, I was in and out of group homes. Finally, I went to one group home, Methodist Home for Children in Raleigh. I was there for a year, graduated their program and just kind of never really went back to the house. I started living on my own. I was already working, so I found ways of supporting myself.
Where were you working at the time?
My first job was at K-Mart, then Kid's Foot Locker, Burger King -- a whole bunch of different places.
How have you learned to deal with homophobia, whether from other people in your life or from society in general?
I hear homophobic remarks and I think, it's just part of life. People are going to be like that. I'm not going to let people get to me or let them push my buttons. It's not my fault there are ignorant people. I feel sorry for ignorant people because it shouldn't be like that.
I'm happy as who I am, and I keep on going. I'm not going to let something like that affect me, because they win if I let them hurt me. I've been hurt enough in life that I don't need more people to hurt me, so if I hear comments, I'm just like, "They're dumb. They're ignorant. They're afraid."
How do you think you went from being young, being suicidal, not having support or a family around, being in a group home, to being someone who's very strong and confident in who you are?
I have good friends around. Also, hearing other people's situations that are worse than mine, I'm just like, "Why am I going to sit here and complain and be all down about it? There's no point." I feel like there are so many bad things going on that you have to be positive. You have to at least have your head up some kind of way, you know?
I guess it's just who I am. I'm thankful for it because I have a lot of friends who are really down or depressed. That's not the person I want to be. Even though I've been through so much, I need to look at the positive things in life, not look at the negatives. If there's nothing positive, I'll make something positive out of it.
Are there any parts or aspects of being gay, or being a part of queer community, that inspire you or give you strength?
I've never been asked that question! Just the people that have been there for the movement -- the positive things out of it inspire me. Also, I see more and more young people coming out, more comfortable with themselves. I'm like, "Yay. Finally." That makes me happy.
The other day, I was at a high school and we were doing testing. And for the first time, I met a female-to-male [transgender person] who was 17! When I was in high school, I was the only one who was out. That's really powerful for a young female-to-male trans person to be that young and be out like that.
I sat there with him and we just talked. I was like, "Tell me your experience. How has it been? What are you going through? How do you feel? Are you supported?" I was like, "Wow." That really inspires me -- more and more young people are coming out, and now you see more young people coming out as trans at a younger age. To me that's fucking cool, because I would've never thought of that.
You've lived in a lot of different places. Can you draw a map of your life for our readers, from where you were born right up until you moved to Washington, D.C.?
I was born here in D.C. Basically, I lived in Arlington until I was in middle school. I went to Thomas Jefferson Middle School until I was in sixth grade, I think. Then we moved to North Carolina -- from sixth through 12th grade, I was in North Carolina. Then maybe two years after North Carolina, I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for four years. That was until about 2007. Then I went to El Salvador for six months, then came here to D.C.
I plan on being here a little while. I would love to live in Decatur, Georgia, or anywhere in Georgia or Mississippi, because I love those areas. I like the South a lot. I feel there's a lot of movement work to be done around HIV/AIDS, and other movements like immigration. I like to go where there's community and where there's change that needs to be seen.
My ultimate dream is to live in El Salvador and to open my own nonprofit to work around HIV/AIDS, as well as queer issues and housing issues.
Is your family originally from El Salvador?
My dad is from El Salvador. My mom is from Colombia.
When did you go to El Salvador for the first time?
I was young. The first time, my dad took us. It was during the end of the civil war in El Salvador. I remember he took us because he wanted us to see where he came from and why he came to the U.S., and how much they were suffering in El Salvador.
I remember going during that time, and people just panicking. And I remember him saying, "This is what you need to see. Now you know why I work so hard. Now you know why I came to the U.S. Be grateful for what you have." I remember I was young, and it was traumatizing because all night you would hear [imitates gunfire] gunshots firing. In the morning you'd wake up and you would go to the market and see dead bodies, and the smell, and you would still hear people shooting. It was interesting.
How old were you at that time?
I think I was 10 or 11.
Then you went back again a few years ago?
Yes, I tend to go every year, for a month or two. I went back last year. I went two years before that. I try to go as much as I can.
It's like my happy place. It's not the U.S. It's not materialistic. It's not, "What are you wearing? Who do you hang out with? What kind of car do you drive? How many bedrooms does your house have? How much money do you make?" It's community. It's people together. It's families together. It's families sitting at tables. It's families hearing conversations. It's a lot of what my family lost when they came to the U.S., and that was basically how to be a family.
People go to work, but they also remember that once they're off work, there's family. They have a break during the work day, for an hour, so they can go home and eat. People want to take information. Community is community. That just makes me feel so good.
Do you work when you're there? Have you hooked up with other HIV/AIDS organizations or LGBT organizations? What's life like for HIV-positive people, and for gay people, in El Salvador?
They're not as open there. It's very depressing because, of course, it's very machista. It's very homophobic. If you're HIV positive, there are no resources. You can't get medicine. That part is really down, but I'm like, "OK, we can start changing that because change starts from community."
I know that there's work to be done. I know that there's advocating to be done for HIV-positive people to get treatment or to get adequate services. But it's hard. It's not an easy life, being gay or being positive. It's slowly changing, but it's still not easy.
What are the organizations like that you work with when you're in El Salvador?
Usually, I've done things with Entre Amigos [an HIV/AIDS and LGBT rights organization in El Salvador], but it's always really been on my own. I'll just pack my clothes and then I'll pack two suitcases full of condoms, female condoms, lube, everything I need. And I just go out.
It's really grassroots. I'm about grassroots. I go out there and I take my little suitcase. Last year, I went to la Zona Rosa, where all the prostitutes work. I was like, "Hey, I'm here to educate you. Would you like some condoms or female condoms? I'll give them to you if you just give me 30 minutes of your time to do a workshop and educate you on how to use these," and people are like, "Yeah, yeah. Go ahead!"
Everybody thought I was crazy. They're like, "You know you're going into a war zone. You might get robbed. You might get killed." I was like, "Yeah, whatever. If we don't hit these areas -- these are the most affected areas -- change is never going to get done."
Yeah, there were people out on the streets, and I got kind of scared. But then I started talking to them, and they heard me and they took the condoms. They were grateful. They were like, "Oh my God. We want these condoms." Talking to the commercial sex workers, educating them about female condoms, I wasn't afraid anymore. I was like, "These people are actually taking information from me." It was really cool because, a couple of days later, I met up with some of the girls who were working the stroll who I had talked to. I saw them at the park and they were like, "You should come in, have some coffee with us. We want to talk to you." And I got to talk to them. That's how you build community -- that's how you build relationships.
At first, people were like, "You shouldn't go over there because it's a bad place." But then I'm like, "Look, I'm having coffee. I'm talking to these females at the park about HIV and STDs and female condoms, and you guys never thought that was going to happen."
They say, "Never judge a book by its cover," but a lot of people do that.
You were recently featured in a documentary film about HIV in Washington, D.C., called The Other City. Can you talk a little bit about that? How did you get involved in the film? What do you hope will be the result of it being widely released and having some measure of recognition?
I got involved because I met the director and the writers at an HIV/AIDS working group here in D.C. They told me about the film and asked me if I wanted to get involved. And I was like, "Yeah, for sure." I was excited. It was kind of a lot of work, just because my schedule is really busy. They'd trying to catch up with me a lot of times, and I was out in the community or at houses doing workshops. But it was a very cool experience.
What I hope will come out of it, especially when it hits here in D.C., is that the message gets across to people that there are people living with HIV/ AIDS, that it does exist and that we need some change. Hopefully there'll be an increase in money for people who need help getting medicine, getting housing.
I think for the community to really see this, I know it'll make an impact on them. It will make change. It will have people really talking about HIV/ AIDS, talking about being tested, talking about the issues that people have who are living with the virus.
It would be cool if we could get it all over the U.S. so everybody could see it, because actually it touches everywhere -- even around the world. I was talking to one of my friends -- he lives in London -- and he was like, "Do you think you could get a screening up here?" I was like, "Yeah, let me see how that could work."
Another way I want to use the film is in community forums -- show it in the community and then having conversations about what they heard, what they learned, how they felt and what changes they think we need to make.
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