The 1-in-4 Latino Gay HIV Forecast Brings Memories of One Who Did Not Survive

Louie Ortiz-Fonseca
Louie Ortiz-Fonseca

On February 24, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report saying that, if current HIV diagnosis rates continue, half of black men who have sex with men (MSM) and a quarter of Latino MSM will be diagnosed with HIV within their lifetimes. That's one in two and one in four.

This was not news to many of us who are the one in four -- we have been sounding the alarm for years. But it was still a sobering reminder that, while infection rates have dropped significantly in other groups, Latino and black MSM continue to be disproportionately impacted by the epidemic.

And it took me right back to my childhood.

I saw him whenever I walked into the bodega.

Even at 10 years old, I knew he was a flaming queen. The way he switched up and down the isles to get ingredients needed for his food station. The way he lip-synced to Gloria Estefan songs blasting from his radio while he worked. The way he rolled his eyes whenever young boys whispered and laughed as they watched him make the food they'd ordered. I knew he was like many of the magical queens my mother surrounded herself with, and this is why I connected to him. We shared an internalized fear and innate survival skill of always having to be prepared to turn to stone when words like "faggot" were thrown. And I knew he recognized himself in my young eyes.

One day, while I waiting for my ham and cheese hoagie, he looked around, and when he saw no one was in earshot, he said, "Are you gay?" I was taken aback by the question. While I was used to being called a "faggot," I was seldom asked if I were gay. I froze and could only shake my head side to side.

He said, "Good. Don't be, because this lifestyle will kill you. Do you hear me?" This was 1986 and even just five years into the AIDS epidemic, I knew what he was talking about. I didn't know how to respond so I just nodded my head up and down and walk away with my hoagie. Over the next couple of months, I watched him as his body sank into itself. He now looked very much like the once magical queens that surrounded my mother, with eyes less prepared-to-be-prepared for the word faggot and more preparing to die.

By early 1987, I saw his picture taped to a cigar box with a note asking for donations to help with his funerals costs. I didn't know then, but he was what the CDC would now call the "one in four" -- and that's what he was trying to save me from.

It is almost 30 years later, and he crosses my mind quite frequently. Whenever I see young gay Latino men, I wonder if someone has told them what he told me. But then I remember that the world tells them that already. It tells them that their love for themselves and each other is dangerous. It tells them that statistically they have a one-in-four chance of being diagnosed with HIV simply because they have sex with men.

Since the release of the CDC report, many in the field have passionately stated that this is a "call to action." While this sounds inspiring on a surface level, I cannot help but ask, "If this is a call to action, then what the hell have folks been doing all this time?" Mainstream LGBTQ non-profits have built empires with government funding promising to decrease HIV infections in our communities. This obviously has not happened.

Frankly, I am beginning to lose faith that it will happen in my lifetime. Sadly, what is likely to happen in my lifetime is that one in four of the gay Latino men I interview for "The Gran Varones" project will be diagnosed with HIV.

Of course, I find hope in knowing that these projections are not a forgone conclusion, but they are without a doubt definitive proof that the current prevention methods and approaches, many of which are antiquated in their belief that the epidemic is driven solely by sexual behavior, aren't working. But these projections are very much a reality for many Latino MSM, including myself, right here, right now.

Some of us are presently in that one in four and know first hand that the epidemic is being driven by racism, homophobia, poverty and stigma. Some of us know that we bear the great burden of HIV infection in our community. Unfortunately, only some us know that these statistics DO NOT mean that we have failed each other or that we have not been doing our best to sustain ourselves as Latino MSM. What these statistics mean is that the system and the prevention organizations charged with reaching us have failed us on many levels.

If this is in fact a "call to action," we as Latino MSM are here to ensure that it is followed by intentional action to end HIV in every community -- even in those communities that have been deemed "hard-to-reach."

Latino MSM, even with little resources, have been reaching out to each other since the beginning of the epidemic. We have been sharing moments and providing support to each other, even through moments of trauma like the one I experienced as a young person buying a hoagie at the bodega.

Louie A. Ortiz-Fonseca is an Afro-Boricua artist born and raised in Philadelphia. Louie understands firsthand the impact of intersecting oppressions of racism, homophobia, poverty, and AIDS-phobia. These experiences inspire his commitment to document the lives and oral history of Latino gay and queer men through his project, "The Gran Varones." Louie is also the 2015 winner of the Hispanic Choice Awards Creative Artist of the Year.