Ramon: “Silence Would Be Just Another Shadow: Going Down Without a Fight”
“In the same blood I hold the HIV virus, I hold (aside from many dreams) a sense of integrity and the conviction that the great cure for AIDS is to fight prejudice.” That’s how Ramon Nunes Mello began his column published last December by the weekly Brazilian magazine Carta Capital for World AIDS day. It was entitled “A sense of urgency: the need to talk about HIV.” The column was a one-time collaboration—usually written by Jean Wyllys, the only openly gay congressman in Brazil right now, who handed his space over to Ramon for December 1st.
The article was the launch pad Ramon needed to start living his condition in a political way.
“I decided to publicly share my diagnosis because I’m aware that visibility can change the way that we, as a society, see HIV/AIDS. We need to speak without taboos, break the misconception that HIV equals death, and reinforce the civil rights of those who live with HIV. It’s in my nature, now more than ever, to live in a political way. Silence would be another shadow: going down without a fight.”
Ramon was born 32 years ago in the city of Araruama. Today he lives in Copacabana and he’s doing his Master’s degree in Brazilian Literature at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, where he studies the poet Adalgisa Nery. The diagnosis came in 2012. Ramon remembers that, from the beginning, he had the need to speak publicly about HIV, though he took a long period of privacy and conversations with his friends and family to gain more confidence. The ultimate push came to him while reading the sociologist and writer Herber de Souza, or Betinho, who said: “I have the conviction that AIDS, like everything in life, is a political matter, and that the politics for AIDS must be built on hope and courage.” As a result of his visibility and public exposition, Ramon joined the wave of activists with HIV in Brazil, like Valéria Piassa Polizzi, Salvador Correa, Bruno Cattoni, Cazu Barroz, Mara Moreira, Rafael Bolacha, João Geraldo Neto y Diego Callisto.
This idea of living HIV in a political way brings up some important questions; nowadays, as matters stand, the act of becoming visible is undoubtedly political. It seems as though we’ve signed an implicit contract: “HIV is omnipresent, but people with HIV should remain silent.” Turning this around is a radical position, with consequences.
Ramon is a poet. He wrote Vinis mofados (Mildewed Vinyls, 2009), Poemas tirados de noticias de jornal (Poems Taken from the Newspaper, 2011) and Há um mar no fundo de cada sonho (There Is a Sea at the Bottom of Every Dream, 2016), plus single poems in numerous anthologies. Poetry has been essential for him to channel the tidal wave of feelings that anyone experiences after being diagnosed.
“Learning about my HIV status made me have an even bigger need to understand my subjectivity through literature and spirituality. Every word is a start. I don’t think I need to wave the HIV battle flag in my poetry, but I can talk about it naturally in my writings, without taboo,” he said.
Ramon gave me the privilege of translating one of his poems:
diálogo com William S. Burroughs
eu sou o outro você
in lak’ech ala k’in
objeto em sujeito
dialogue with William S. Burroughs
i am another you
in lak’ech ala k’in
object in subject
Language: the real virus. Either through poetry or a blog post, or maybe simply by inviting others to talk about it, there are many of us who think that HIV is best fought with words. Imagine a world where nobody condemned the condom, where every person with HIV had full support from those around them and didn’t feel ashamed of getting treatment. A world where politicians hadn’t spent years and millions in research thinking that people who get HIV deserve it and therefore it’s not a big deal. All of this in terms of language. Unfortunately, even though research keeps moving forward, the social conversation around HIV is in danger of becoming stagnant in many places, and in others, it’s still light years away from catching up with the speed of medical progress. Talking is urgent, like Ramon said in his column.
I recall when I came out of the HIV closet to those around me, somebody asked me: “So, are you going to assume HIV as an identity?” It was a hard question in a moment where I had just shared my HIV status with three or four people. Now, a year later, I’d answer something paradoxical: despite the fact that I write more and more about HIV, and I’m more and more invested in it, HIV is not the identity for me, it’s just another part of who I am. Nevertheless, I do like to refer to my HIV status as “I am HIV-positive.” There are more options, like “I live with HIV,” or “I’m an HIV carrier.” However, I don’t quite like these last two: I live with my husband, not with HIV, and “carrier” makes me picture myself going back and forth with the virus in a cart. It makes no sense. I like “I am HIV-positive” because it’s a straightforward way to say it without shame. Ramon prefers another formula: “I have HIV.”
“Because before being HIV-positive we are individuals. I am Ramon. Brazilian. Poet. Journalist. Etc. My identity is made up of many things, including my culture, my beliefs, and now also the presence of HIV. I prefer to say: the subject is me, not HIV. Identity changes do happen, given that there is a life code that must be followed: ethics, treatment, love, health. But the subject is still me.”
HIV is a strange condition, an invisible host. I know I am HIV-positive because that’s what was said on a test. When we say we are HIV-positive, we are actually saying that it said so on a test and that we take one or several pills every day. But in many cases there are hardly any physical changes. On the other hand, once we’ve become visible as HIV- positive, nowadays and under these circumstances, is it possible not to become an activist? There are very few of us outside of the HIV closet, and if we don’t participate actively in the public conversation, health institutions, journalists, the government, etc. will speak for us in the end, generally in the form of statistics.
Well, yes. Being HIV-positive, and visible, is a political act: To put a face and a background to what the rest of the world only sees as a percentage, to take control of our own story.
How did your friends and family, and well, the rest of the country, react when you wrote your column for Jean Wyllys?
“The response has been kind. Many people approached me to tell me about their diagnosis, to talk. If what I wrote helped even just one person, I am happy. I think what matters is to show that we are not alone and, more importantly, that it’s essential to live a good, healthy and happy life. Visibility acts like a filter: now I’m only approached by those who have left prejudice behind.”
As soon as one comes out of the HIV closet, and suggests others the need to do the same to help us create a new social concept of what HIV is today, there’s always a discussion about those who don’t have the option of becoming visible, whether due to emotional struggle, inner stigma, external pressure or tangible risks, such as losing their jobs, having their families involved and fearing retaliation, or due to living in a completely hostile environment towards sex and sexual health.
“I don’t think everybody needs to ‘come out of the HIV closet.’ I respect those who choose silence. The option is there for those who are able, and want, to do it. But coming out of the HIV closet means standing up against our own prejudice, and we have to be ready for that.”
There are always risks. It doesn’t matter if we live surrounded by privilege with people who support us unconditionally: becoming visible comes with risk.
“Life is risk. I talked to a lot of my friends, family and my partner, and did some thinking on my own. I chose freedom. Freedom to interact with others without fear and not having to hide. Freedom to write about the matter without taboos. What would be the risk in my case? To be seen exclusively as an HIV-carrier? It could be. But I know what I am, how much I’m worth, and how much love I can give. Being aware of this gives me strength. I rather believe that by facing the risk we can change our reality for the better.”
So, was it worth it to come out of the HIV closet? “As Fernando Pessoa said: ‘Everything is worth it when the soul is not small.’ Yes. It was worth it.”