By Winston Gieseke
Originally published on Advocate.com August 10 2011 4:00 AM ET
In addition to being a celebrity photographer, director, and star of TV’s The A-List: New York, Mike Ruiz has long been involved in charitable causes dear to him. He recently hosted a kick-off event for the AIDS Walk New York and continues to lend his time — and his art — to raising money and awareness, and to promoting prevention education.
How did you get involved with the AIDS Walk?
[Event sponsor] GMHC (GMCH.org) contacted me last November asking me to participate in their Fashion Forward event, so I donated art for their silent auction. And since then I’ve been doing whatever I can to raise awareness for them. When they asked me to do the kickoff for the AIDS Walk guest bartending at [New York City sports bar] Boxers, I said yes. We raised a nice chunk of change and I had a great time.
Between your photography and the TV show, you’ve got a lot on your plate. Why is it so important for you to give back to the community?
I grew up gay in a very blue-collar suburban environment and overcame a lot of challenges to find my way to New York City, where I made a great life for myself. And after waking up one day feeling incredibly grateful and fortunate, I began to notice that there were many heartbreaking things needing attention. I felt like I had to do something. It was involuntary. And now it’s engrained in my identity. I would really feel empty if I weren’t doing as much as I’m doing.
You shot the image for the Men’s Sexual Health Program’s 36-hours campaign. How did that come about?
My friend, Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, who works at the NYU School of Medicine in infectious diseases, mounted a program in which they go into bathhouses and clubs and do actual [HIV] testing on site. I shot a campaign to help raise awareness. Very few people — I’m told only about 30% of the population in New York City — are aware that if you’ve been exposed to HIV you have 36 hours to embark on a course of treatment that can help eradicate it. It’s post-exposure prophylaxis [PEP]. (HIVInfosource.org/HIVis/About/TestingProject.html)
How is the program doing?
It’s doing well. It’s very grass roots at this point. The whole point is to try and take the terror and stigma out of being infected. Some of these shock and awe commercials for HIV are terrifying, in my opinion. For some people who are wired a certain way, it might make them aware and make them think, Wow this is pretty scary shit — I better take care of myself. But for a lot of people it just pushes them further into denial. The goal is to make people more apt to get tested and to follow through with treatment.
You do a lot of work with gay youth. What observations have you made about the younger generation’s perceptions on HIV/AIDS versus your own generation’s?
My generation grew up thinking HIV was a death sentence, so we have a completely different mindset from those who seem to view this as a manageable disease. Dr. Daskalakis educated me a lot on the statistics, and it turns out there’s a rise of infection among young people, which can be attributed to the fact that they don’t have the sense of urgency my generation did.
When were you first impacted by HIV/AIDS?
I’d been hearing stories about it since high school, but my first roommate in Miami in 1992 had HIV, and he later succumbed to it. After I moved away from Miami, we would talk on the phone, and over the course of a couple years his voice started changing. He never told me he was infected, and when I got the call that he was gone, it just knocked the wind out of me.
Will we see any of your AIDS activism on the upcoming season of The A-List: New York?
I hope so, but I don’t have much control over what people see. I’ve learned that you have to put a certain spin on things to get them to include it on the show because at the end of the day it’s a reality show and it’s meant to be entertaining. But I don’t ever want to trivialize anything I’m doing just to get it on TV. It’s a very fine line to walk. But the show has been great for me because a lot of the organizations I work with now have been a direct result of me being visible enough to warrant having anyone give a crap about anything I have to say. And for that I’m grateful.