Strengthening the Spirit
Rafael Otero-Rivera leads the fight against HIV--in Puerto Rico.
by qvStaff Roldán

Rafael Otero-RiveraRafael Otero-Rivera is a man whose strength and dedication are truly inspirational. His work and leadership in the field of HIV prevention and services for those who are HIV+ have benefitted and helped thousands of people in his homeland of Puerto Rico. He has worked with many agencies, including his present position as the vice president for the Fundación SIDA de Puerto Rico.

Currently living in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, 39-year-old Rafael organizes public policy around HIV prevention in Puerto Rico's LGBT community as well as the general community. He is also on the National Community Prevention Planning Group (CPG), a group dedicated to the prevention of HIV in Puerto Rico.

Rafael came out at the tender age of 18, which was very young at the time. "But even when I was in the closet, I tried to dismantle it!" he says.

Rafael was lucky enough to have full support from his family after he came out. "After coming out to my parents, they became my life," he says. "They supported me because they knew that I had found my identity and that I knew who I was. But it wasn't easy. My family was very religious and my dad was a captain in the National Guard, so both of those issues made it difficult for me to come out. We had psychologist and psychiatrist appointments, but in reality, even though I attended, I knew it wasn't for me. It was more for my family who needed to deal with the fact that they had a QV son."
In the 20 years since he has come out, Rafael says he has witnessed many positive changes for Puerto Rico's QV community. "When I first came out, there were very few QV places that existed. Most people in Puerto Rico were very 'macho.' That has softened over the years with America's influence, though we continue to be somewhat 'macho.' In years past, there were no streets where we could walk and hold a partner's hand, but now there are some areas where you can, and it doesn't matter to other people. Before, when they called us names on the street, we had to hide. Now we respond. We've realized that we have a space and a right to be who we are."

Rafael continues, "I think all of these changes have come because of HIV. It has helped us to strengthen our community emotionally and educationally. We have learned that if we don't defend ourselves, no one else will-no one else will speak up for us."

HIV certainly changed Rafael's life. After he was diagnosed as HIV-positive 11 years ago, he became inspired to get closely involved with the issue. He explains, "When I first found out I was HIV+, I dealt with my own personal issues, but I also saw a need for all those in the country who were HIV+ and QV. I felt that I, as an HIV+ individual, could use my experience to effectively spread the prevention message to the community in general."

Though Rafael says the HIV situation in Puerto Rico has improved, the problem is far from being resolved. Rafael explains, "The biggest problem (with regards to HIV) is with drug abuse through injection because many people are sharing needles. There is one organization that has begun to offer needle exchanges and that has been successful. As for the QV community, the numbers aren't as high. A bigger problem is actually among young people-both straight and QV. They seem to feel as if they don't need prevention. It's almost as if they are saying to the older people, 'You had the opportunity to practice unsafe sex, and now I want that opportunity. too.'"

Rafael is very concerned for the youth. His advice to young QV individuals is, "To strengthen yourselves emotionally because even though we've moved forward, it continues to be a difficult process to be a young QV person-especially coming out. They need to focus on education. In Puerto Rico, if you don't have an educational background, you don't have the capacity to succeed in life. It's easy for the community to ostracize you. This occurs regardless of orientation. I'd say young people need to defend their space because the older vanguard movement is not there. They need to pick up where we left off."

And for those out there who are HIV+, or who have just been diagnosed with HIV, Rafael encourages them to find a community of support in order to build strength. "First, an individual must strengthen himself emotionally," he says. "Through my own experience as an HIV+ individual, I understand that. It's necessary to be compliant with medications to strengthen one's immune system. One needs to develop a support network. I feel it is important for people to participate in support groups-I was in one for three years. Support groups help you grow and strengthen all aspects of a person's life-not just dealing with HIV. The support group I was involved with was great. We went to Costa Rica to run a facilitator's training. We also produced and wrote a play based on our experiences and lives so that we could share our experiences with other QV HIV+ individuals and their families. These activities strengthen the spirit and the will to survive."


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