Sexual health advocate Raul Quintero was made for this work. The HIV prevention specialist says he was raised in the LGBTQ community, and that was instrumental in guiding him toward his career choice.
“Basically, I grew up in a predominately queer household,” he says. Quintero was raised by his mom’s family, he explains, ticking off the connections. “My mom was queer, or trans, however she identifies. Her twin brother was gay, her oldest brother was gay, her youngest brother was gay—and I’m queer.”
“I was probably the only 5-year-old who knew sex workers and what trans women were—and grew up with trans women. I’m a lifelong trans ally because of it.”
And yet, he acknowledges, “I also grew up in a kind of sex-negative household, around queer sex—some internalized homophobia and a lot of HIV stigma.”
That was true despite, or maybe because of, the impact HIV had on his family.
“I’m going to be 38 this year, so I’m almost as old as them officially naming it HIV,” he says. During his childhood in the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, “I witnessed one of my uncle’s entire group of friends die in about a year. My own uncle Michael had battled with HIV, until he died of AIDS-related causes in the early ‘90s.”
Quintero didn’t just witness how stigma impacted those living with HIV, he also experienced first-hand how fear of HIV and shame about gay sexuality could derail the life of someone who was HIV-negative. In 1999, Quintero was sure he had acquired HIV from his first boyfriend.
“I thought, for some reason, I was HIV-positive, because he left me for an intravenous drug user,” he recalls. Rather than get tested, Quintero took drastic measures and “stopped my sex life.”
He remained abstinent for seven long years. It wasn’t until 2008, when he was taking sexual health classes at college that Quintero realized what an over-reaction becoming celibate had been.
“I realized that I was living with stigma,” he recalls now. “I realized I didn’t want other people to go through what I went through. To halt their sex life for seven years, to live with sex-negativity, to have misinformation. So, I wanted to become a sex educator.”
But, he admits, “I didn’t know how to become a sex therapist.” Instead, he started volunteering as an educator around safer sex and HIV awareness. He got an unpaid gig as an HIV instructor at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, where he says, he “developed my passion for promoting sex-positive education.”
Quintero says it’s important to him to combat the shaming and secrecy around sexuality that exists within the Latino community especially. He believes it’s important to have healthy, positive attitudes about our own sexual choices, whether that be monogamy or polyamory, so we can then “talk about pleasurable ways that will reduce possibilities of acquiring something” like sexually-transmitted infections.
“Let’s normalize sex,” advocates Quintero. “I don’t use the word ‘promiscuous,’ I use ‘sexually liberated.’ Let’s talk about sexual liberation… and hopefully empower people to take control of their lives and empower themselves to enjoy their sexual pleasure.”
Quintero recognizes that men in the Latino community have higher risks of becoming HIV-positive, and those risks are compounded by issues around immigration and poverty.
“A large batch of my patients are undocumented Latino males—however they identify sexually—and it was important to me to go into our community and realize they weren’t receiving the resources that they needed.”
Quintero says he became passionate about PrEP when he “realized that my community didn’t really know about it.”
By then the advocate was working in marketing at AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and “it was around that time that Michael Weinstein was kind of spieling his anti-PrEP rhetoric. And that wasn’t something that I… supported.”
When he left AHF, a former mentor encouraged him to come work for one of the Wesley Health Centers, at a small, federally-funded clinic in Los Angeles that provides HIV prevention services, family health care, and care for the city’s homeless. It is one of twelve such clinics in the Los Angeles area run by the JWCH Institute.
“When I first started with JWCH, I just started an online brand called the ‘PrEPducator,’” Quintero recalls. “You can still look up the Instagram [account]. And I was basically having one-on-one conversations on Grindr and Scruff and Growlr. I would log onto Grindr and all these people started hitting me up, like ‘I read about PrEP, but I don't know about PrEP. What is this?’”
Those conversations renewed his commitment to providing his community with information about the HIV-prevention medication.
Today he’s a biomedical prevention program coordinator at the Hollywood clinic. “We run a PrEP program out of our clinic,” he says. “I do sexual health counseling. I do HIV testing. I link people directly to PrEP clinics. And I support them along the way. Basically, at the core I’m the PrEP navigator, with, of course, managerial duties.”
Although his work is now “like 95 percent paperwork,” Quintero says that he still finds it rewarding, and still sees the effects education and support can have on his clientele.
“I mean, I’ve been lucky to be with some people their entire PrEP lifetime,” he says, referencing a young man he works with who first came into the clinic at 19, struggling with his sexuality. Quintero says the young man was “having sex with men but didn’t have a sexual identity yet… I’m like, ‘Okay. It’s all good. Whatever you’re doing, I’m here to support you.’”
The PrEP navigator says it has been great to see the young man grow and come into his own, adding that, “Now he’s comfortable, he’s out to friends, he knows he’s taking PrEP, he’s not scared of being tested.”
And the best part? “He’s also mentioned it to other people in his life who might benefit from PrEP.”