Ryan White Voices
My name is José Ramirez. I am 29 years old. I live and work here in Washington, DC.
José: Mucho Orgullo.
Soy nombre gay, Latino, positivo y mucho orgullo.
José is the Youth Empowerment Coordinator at the La Clinica Del Puebo, Washington, D.C.
He has been active in HIV/AIDS education for 10+ years.
I also work for La Clinica Del Pueblo with a program called Mpodérate!, which is an HIV/AIDS prevention program for gay Latino youth in DC, Maryland and Virginia.
I have 14 tattoos all over my body.
The tattoo behind my left ear is the HIV/AIDS symbol. I got that, because, one, I'm HIV positive and two, it's a conversation starter.
I've always known I was gay. Since I was little, I remember I always attracted to men. But I did go through that stage, trying to figure out who I was. So I had girlfriends, but at the same time, I was also always messing around with guys.
So I think I've always known, it was just the whole process of coming out, because especially in the Latino community, the whole machismo* that there is and me coming from a family … especially my dad … He has thirteen kids from eight different women. I'm the first son, so I was expected to follow his role so, you know, be a good business man, have a lot of kids, have a lot of women, which [is] not what Dad got.
I finally came out my freshman year [of high school], because my family was like, “Why aren’t you with a girl?” And then a lot of like stuff went down. So I came out and they weren’t really accepting. I tried to commit suicide. My mom found me, and that’s when like everything crazy started happening. The State took me away from my parents. I was in group homes for three months. I was, like, in a mental ward, because they thought I was crazy because I tried to commit suicide.
When I did come out, that was the first thing that I heard … from my mom … “Don’t end up with HIV.”
Instead of saying other things, why do you have to say that? And I think that is what a lot of young people get from their parents when they do, especially gay men, when they come out of the closet. It’s like, “Well you know all gay people get HIV.” “Well you know it’s a sin.”
There’s no talking about prevention or anything. It’s not saying, “Okay, let’s talk about how you put on a condom. Let’s talk about safe sex.”
The guy who infected me with HIV actually had full blown AIDS and we were messing around and everything. I used to work the street, as well. I used to, like, prostitute myself at night. I would get money, but then I met him, and we connected right away. And he took care of me. I was still working, but he took care of me. Anything else I needed, it was there.
Then he just, like, disappeared. His friend was a bartender at a nightclub that I used to go out to a lot with my friends. And I asked his friend [about him]. I was like, “Where’s Joey at?” like you know, “He hasn’t called me. I haven’t seen him. What’s wrong?”
And he just looked at me, but he looked at me like he saw a ghost and he was like, “He never told you anything?”
And I was like “What?”
And he’s like, “You know Joey’s sick.”
And I was like “Yeah, I know he’s sick. He has diabetes.”
And he goes “No Sweetie. It’s not diabetes.” He’s like, you know, “He has AIDS.”
But I didn’t know that much. So I knew I got to go and get tested. My school had a wellness center, so I decided to go get tested and I remember I told Miss Sally, that’s who tested me, I told her my whole situation. And she’s like, “All right, you know. We’re going to test you and everything is going to be all right. She’s like, ‘Treatment nowadays …’”
The whole spiel that you give to someone.
And so I got tested, and that's back before they even had the rapid test. You know, I was nervous. As soon as I got in there, I saw Ms. Sally's face and she's like come on, we need to talk.
And I was like, “I’m positive, I know I’m positive.”
It was like, I wasn't mad, I was just shocked.
And she was like, “Do you want to talk?”
And it was like, “No, I don’t want to talk.” I remember telling her, “Talk about what? I have HIV, you know.”
She was like, “You know, you’re going to be all right.”
And I was like, “All right.”
Everything just seemed so like, like everything was frozen. Got in my little car and went home … and I just went to my room and just stood there, just stayed there. I think it was like two weeks or something, and I wasn't like … I was still going to school, but it was just like, I didn't know what to do.
But then finally, I don't know what hit me, I was like, either I could sit here and cry about it and like not do nothing about it or I can do something. And I was already starting to get involved with like youth organizing. Like I used to hook up with this organization called the North Carolina LAMBDA Youth Network, where I ended up working and starting their very first HIV/AIDS prevention program there and the very first HIV/AIDS support group for young gay people.
So, I got … so that came to my head, so I was like, I’ll just talk about it. I’ll be open about it. You know, I’ll tell my story to other people, because I don’t want this to happen to other young people. Because I knew a lot of other young people just like me that were working the streets, and they came from like messed up families, and I was like, “This is going to going to happen to them, and I don’t want that to happen to them.”
La Clinica Del Pueblo
21% of estimated AIDS diagnoses are among Hispanics
22% of Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program clients are Hispanic.
[Speaking to someone off screen.]
The center is called MPoderate!, which means “empowerment.” The only kind in the city actually that works with gay Latino youth. We do a lot of HIV/AIDS prevention, teaching our young people about HIV, AIDS, STDs, condoms. But we don’t just jump into HIV/AIDS, we jump into their issues first, because you got to meet people where they’re at. We’re a safe space.
Since we work with young people, they’re still figuring out what their sexuality is and maybe they just want to do drag or maybe they always wanted to try on a pair of high heels and they couldn’t ‘cause at home because someone was going to yell at them or cuss them out or call them gay … stuff like that.
And so, this is like … When I say “safe space,” you can come into the center and be who you really want to be. ‘Cause once they walk out that door, they’re someone different, especially if they’re not out of the closet, you know. If someone feels comfortable with themselves, they’re going to listen to what you have to say and they’re going to want to take care of themselves. But if they came in here and we automatically judged them or said, “Oh no, you can’t wear high heels, because you’re a guy,” they’re not going to listen to you. They’re going to walk out that door, so they’re never going to get the messages that we’re trying to give to them.
A lot of people, because their families either done stuff to them, or … Most of our young people have been sexually assaulted by a family member, and stuff like that. And so, we have to build their trust, because they come in here not really trusting anybody. We told our young people, “Talk to me about anything. Even if you didn’t use a condom that night, tell me that. That way, we can talk about why you didn’t use a condom … what was going on.”
And those are important conversations to have with these young people. Lately, we’ve seen more, not like “girlfriends-girlfriends,” but homegirls** that come to the center. So we talk to them about pregnancy prevention, the female condom, how to use a female condom, and also, like, healthy relationships. That’s another thing. A lot of our young people don’t know what healthy relationships are, because they’ve never seen a healthy relationship. We come from families that they didn’t have healthy relationships. So a lot of yelling, a lot of hitting, a lot of domestic violence, where a lot of people are like “What? Gay people are, like, beating each other up?” and I’m like “Yeah, they are.”
Like, we have a lot of young people who are in relationships who are like hitting each other. Or like, we have a lot of transwomen who are probably in a relationship with a guy that's beating on them, but they're not going to say anything because they're afraid to call the police. Because one, police, are they going to ask me for my ID? And two, am I going to be judged because I'm trans?
I connect with all the young people who come in here, ‘cause of my background and the way I live life, I can identify with a lot of them. So we work with commercial sex workers, I used to work the streets. We work with young people who use drugs, I used to use drugs. We work with young people who are immigrants. I’m not an immigrant, but my family [members] are, so I know what the issues are.
Because a lot of our young people come from like rural areas in Central and South America. So of course [they might believe you can get HIV] if you [drink] out of the same] cup or if you kiss someone. The questions that people always had [about HIV]. If you’re sick, if you have HIV, you’ll look like you have HIV, so you’ll be real skinny and sick. But once they meet me and they start talking to me or meet some friends that I have who are openly, uh, openly [HIV] positive, they’re like “Oh wow, like, I didn’t know that a person could look normal.”
And that’s like the first they say, “You don’t look sick.”
And within the Latino community, I think it is still strong that people are still scared to talk about being positive. And, because people talk about HIV/AIDS and they joke around a lot. So you hear, like, conversations of young people or people in the community just talking and joking more about it. “I’ll get housing. I’ll get food stamps. I’ll get free medical care.”
So, it’s like, they’re not too worried about it. They are worried, but they’re worried about it, because they’re like ,“Oh, I’ll get my stuff paid.” I hear a lot of them joking about it, so we let them know, “What’s so funny about it?”
I just get mad at the whole joke, I’m like “That’s not cool.”
And like, I told them, “You don’t get free housing. A lot of people don’t get free housing. People are fighting for housing.” Um, so you have to, like, educate them.
Stop the bull. Use a condom. Get tested.
I'm proud of whom I am being a queer man, being a queer man Latino, um, so I feel like I should represent, you know, who I am and my community that I work for.
La Clínica del receives funding from Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program Parts A and B.
In addition to working a the Youth Center, José is treated for HIV by La Clinica Del Pueblo.
*Spanish term to refer to a strong sense of masculine pride
**“Homegirl” is a slang term to refer to a female friend or acquaintance who is generally from one’s own neighborhood.