As a Latino Gay Man With HIV, My Internal Shame Started at Home
I come from a Cuban mother and a Bolivian father, so I am surrounded by tons and tons of loud-mouthed Latino family members who love to talk about each other and intrude into each other's lives as much as possible. Personally, I love it. But when it comes to the topic of my HIV, nobody talks about it; at least, they don't with me.
I honestly don't even know who in my family knows and who doesn't know, because my mom was pretty adamant about keeping the news between us, especially after going through "the ordeal" of finding out I was gay. It was hard enough for her to admit that to the family, so really I don't know where my HIV stands, and I haven't pushed it much.
Growing up with what felt like 132 cousins and being surrounded by a very Latino culture and family, I was subjected to machismo on a daily basis and felt the eyes of everyone judging me. I never played sports and preferred bow ties to cleats. My first Halloween costume was Boy George, although my mom insisted to everyone that I was a punk rocker instead. My cousins would tease me when I didn't want to roughhouse with them, and even the adults took stabs at me at family parties when I did things or acted in ways that they associated with being gay.
I had been living in South America for just a few short months before I met the man who eventually convinced me that we were supposed to be married and spend the rest of our lives together. I was already out to my friends and family in the U.S. about my sexuality. But when I moved to conservative Bolivia, where my father's family is from and mostly still lives, I had to consider whether telling them I was gay was something I wanted to deal with. I hadn't planned on it, but when there was a ceremony between two dudes being planned, I was left without many options.
To my surprise, coming out to my family wasn't as difficult a process as I had anticipated. Some of the older aunts and uncles pretended that my announcement wasn't real, so we never really discussed it. Those same family members chose not to attend our wedding, using various excuses but never admitting the real reason to spare my feelings.
But one of my aunts, the eldest actually, shocked the entire family and me by becoming my number-one supporter. She desperately wanted to make our wedding cake, and came from far away to attend the ceremony and make sure I knew that she was with me on this one. It was a wonderful feeling of acceptance that I had never anticipated. Then, days before the ceremony, she took me aside and whispered to me, "Please just be careful and don't get AIDS," and that's when my heart silently broke a little.
My loving aunt, who had lived all her life in Bolivia, although she was well traveled, still saw HIV as a gay disease. She didn't maliciously whisper those words to me; I know they came from her concern for my well-being, but they still hurt a bit. Most people in Bolivia, or really any Latin American country, weren't well versed in HIV/AIDS because there was little-to-no education about either, and I wasn't going to get into a discussion with her at that moment to explain that I wasn't going to become infected just because I was a gay man. I brushed it off and instead enjoyed the moment with her.
A couple of years later, after I received the news that I had indeed become HIV positive, one of my first thoughts was, "How am I going to tell my family overseas?" That's when my aunt's words of wisdom began to play over and over in my head. I was so ashamed to admit that she had been, in a sense, right. And my actions were going to further confirm to her that HIV is a gay man's issue and disease. I mean, I was probably the only gay man she knew and, lo and behold, I was HIV positive.
To this day, seven years later, I still haven't found the courage to tell my aunt the news. I imagine she knows, because I've been pretty vocal with my family and, well, everybody about my status. But I have never spoken to her about it. Beyond a few of my cousins who are more like best friends to me, and who asked me about it, my family and I never really talk about it.
With the number of HIV infections rising within the Latino gay community, I don't question why it is happening because it makes perfect sense to me. Many Latinos are raised in a home environment in which being gay isn't something anyone talks about because it's seen as a bad thing. This kind of culture breeds secretive actions, and the consequences are being felt even more now than in the past. Yes, we are living at a time when there is a more accepting country and culture, but that hasn't exactly spread to the Latino community, just yet. If it doesn't soon, all Latinos, not just men, will be put more and more at risk of becoming HIV-positive due to the shame and homophobia that is learned at home.