In 1994, a friend of mine (who we will call Lionel) asked me to accompany him to a clinic in West Philadelphia to get the results of his HIV test. Back then, HIV tests were not rapid – it took an entire week to get your results; a week of assessing and reevaluating every decision you had made until that point. Looking back, I don’t know how he made it through the week without telling me. The HIV prevention messages were not kind to us queer* folks, so I can only imagine what thoughts ran through his mind. I remember feeling privileged that he had trusted me enough to ask me to go with him. It never occurred to me that Lionel would test positive. We were young teens already fighting daily battles to survive. My thought – my wish – was that we would be sparred.
The visit didn’t last long. Honestly, I don’t remember much, besides being given condoms by the nurse. We put them in our pockets and walked out. We made small talk on our way back to the car when we ran into another friend. We joked and decided that we would get lunch: a fish platter. As we were waiting for our food order, Lionel whispered “We are dying.” I paused and replied, “Here you go! What the hell do you mean?” He stated again, “We are all dying. Every day.” The realization that my friend was HIV positive immediately hit me. I remember telling myself “Don’t break. Keep a straight face.” Thank God I listened to my instincts because my other friend broke into tears and damn near fainted as Lionel disclosed that he was HIV positive. My immediate response was “We will beat this. I promise you.” That’s what I said, but I knew (at the time) that I was lying. I knew that our conversations about the future would be no longer.
Later that night, I tuned into MTV’s “The Real World.” This was long before reality TV was a “thing.” The Real World, while already into its third season was still groundbreaking to me. I was immediately mesmerized by cast member Pedro Zamora, a 22 year old Latino Gay Man who was HIV positive. I was in awe that there was a Latino gay man on TV! I picked up the phone and called Lionel and told him to turn to MTV immediately. We watched that episode while on the phone. We watched every episode while on the phone. There was something about the will, courage and love that Pedro possessed that supported me in supporting Lionel. Pedro inspired us to have conversations about HIV with friends. Pedro shattered the myth that only white gay old men were impacted. Pedro reminded us that life does go on.
While watching the last episode, it was announced that Pedro had succumbed to the disease. My stomach sank and I could hear Lionel crying. I knew that he was not crying just for Pedro but for what would eventually happen to him. I knew there was nothing I could say. I no longer believed what I had initially said months earlier “We will beat this. I promise you.”
We managed these feelings and fears without adult support. We navigated shame without support groups. We continued to be teens doing teen things with a heavy secret; a secret that we shared only with Pedro. Now Pedro, our single hope of inspiration was gone.
I was working at GALAEI, a Latino AIDS organization in Philadelphia. when the news began to spread like wildfire. There had been a breakthrough in the treatment of HIV. Suddenly there was hope. The promise I had made to Lionel two years earlier now seemed possible. Suddenly, the conversations about the future returned.
Looking back, I know for a fact that we would have not survived those two years without the inspiration Pedro Zamora provided us. He sustained us so that Lionel could make it to 2014. Pedro – in his indirect way – served as both mentor and big brother. So on this 20th anniversary of his death, we raise him up. We thank him for the love and light he provided then and the light he continues to provide us.
Thank you, Pedro, we have survived because of you.
- Louie A. Ortiz-Fonseca