A Grim Prognosis

HIV infection is soaring in the Latino population. Can El Futuro slow it down?

The men think about it for a second, look at each other. Seizing on the pause, Medina throws his hands in the air. "I would be gay!" he exclaims. "I like being gay. I have fun being gay. I am gay. And you know, I think the longer we go on, the easier it's going to get for our little brothers and sisters."

For the next hour and a half, Medina tells the guys about El Futuro. He describes it as a home, a rec room, an environment that's meant to be as casual and unstructured as possible. The men -- three Chicanos, two Mexicanos, one white guy -- share war stories, coming-out stories. One, a Denver native, reveals that he's never come out to his family even though he sees them every weekend.

"It's nice to be here to hang out and just listen to other people," he says. "I may look at it differently after having these discussions. Or I may decide I'm doing the right thing by not coming out. I don't want to be ostracized for three months or anything like that. But it's kind of like, by listening to other people's experience, you learn how to deal with your own."

 
 
Chris Medina directs El Futuro, a community center.
Anthony Camera
Chris Medina directs El Futuro, a community center.

By 8 p.m., the room radiates with that warm, buzzy feeling of people who are now a little bit closer than they were when the night began. One guy suggests holding a family night. They make plans for their next gathering. Medina offers one more question to the group: Is it easy or hard to be Latino and gay in Denver?

They all agree it's hard. And they all agree it's getting easier.

This is the kind of moment that Lorenzo Ramirez lives for.

"El Futuro is shaping up exactly the way we pictured it," says Ramirez, who has hosted the Grupa Palanca support group since it started in 1994.

"And it has so much more potential to take off in the future. It's a safe space, devoid of alcohol and everything else you see in places where gay men usually come together. We want to respect how they were brought up, to be conscious of who they are. There's no drama, which gay men are famous for creating."

Considered the most influential Latino HIV activist in Denver, Ramirez began dreaming of a place like El Futuro years ago. An artist and dancer from Wyoming, the son of Mexican-born parents, he was first drawn to Denver in the '70s by street-level political movements like the Crusade for Justice and the Chicano Civil Rights Movement. In 1995, with some support from the Colorado Aids Project, Ramirez launched his own grassroots project through Servicios de la Raza, where he'd worked since the late '80s: It was an HIV outreach and prevention program called La Gente. La Gente marked the first time that anyone had launched an organized attack against the advance of HIV into the Latino community -- an idea that initially met with some resistance.

"Some of the straight Chicano men just didn't want to deal with it, to get into the homophobia," Ramirez says. "They said, 'There are others who will do it.' And it led to a lot of soul-searching.

"Finally they realized that gay men are part of our community," he adds, "and the question was: Do we embrace them or reject them? And if we reject them, what does that say about us?"

Ramirez himself was diagnosed with HIV in January 1993, a fact he kept from his friends and family for two years. At the time, TV ads warned communities of color about their high risk of contracting HIV, but up until that point, there were few messages that humanized the threat to brown people. It was still thought of as a gay problem, a white problem, a big-city problem. White folks had Rock Hudson. African-Americans had Magic Johnson. Within his community, Ramirez became the face of HIV. He spoke at schools, businesses and community centers, urging other Latinos to protect themselves.

"The closet is a very lonely place to be. There's sadness, isolation," he says. "When I came out about my status, I saw the power of that disclosure. What I was learning about the virus was helping me personally, and I wasn't afraid to get in front of people."

Ramirez has seen tremendous changes in both HIV and the gay community in Denver over the past two decades, and he agrees that while it's still hard to be gay in Denver, it's getting easier, especially for Chicanos. That's good news, of course, but it makes it all the more vital that a proactive HIV-prevention message get through. Rates of infection for young men of all races have gone up, accounting for 32 percent of new infections over the past five years.

"I lost 36 friends in the late '80s and early '90s," Ramirez says. "I think the younger guys haven't experienced that kind of cycle; the shock value isn't there to motivate them. They see the ads; the guys look so healthy and happy. People are letting their guard down. They say, 'Oh, if I get it, I'll just do the medications. Look at you.'"

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