I first met scholar, activist, and all-around cool guy Nestor Rogel in 2018, when he was a recipient of the annual Pedro Zamora Young Leaders Scholarship. Since 2009, the program (AIDSMemorial.org) has awarded $300,000 in scholarships to 88 emerging young leaders in the fight against HIV — many of whom, like Rogel, are living with HIV themselves.
Rogel was born HIV-positive and grew up in south-central Los Angeles. He didn’t learn of his status until he was 13, when a social worker disclosed it to him by accident, believing he already knew.
“It was heartbreaking,” he confided two years ago. “I straight up stopped thinking I was a person anymore...I really thought I was a monster.”
His teen years brought more trauma and challenges, including the loss of his mother to AIDS-related complications and experiencing extreme violence in El Salvador when he sent there to live with family, Today, it’s hard to believe that the good-natured, funny young man who loves rock music has endured so much. It hasn’t been an easy journey.
“I have been fortunate to have siblings that were able to see the good in me when I could not,” Rogel says. “It was hard. I had always planned to die at 19, and tried to commit suicide multiple times…. It took multiple attempts at therapy before it stuck. I did many other activities like playing guitar, jogging, and boxing to help me with the anxiety. I would say that healing is a journey and it can look like different things to people. Generally, I think it helps to reach out to someone you love and check in. It can make a lot of difference.”
A graduate of California State University, Dominguez Hills, Rogel now works as a case manager for AltaMed Health Services in East L.A., which offers HIV and numerous other health care services. He also serves on the Los Angeles County Commission on HIV and has worked with numerous other local nonprofits and grassroots orgs. In addition, Rogel works part-time as a library clerk and as a doorman at a local bar.
Though Rogel is straight, he’s become a great ally to the LGBTQ community through his work around HIV (he even started a safe space called Queer in Compton). Still, he admits it can sometimes be difficult for straight folks living with HIV, who may feel confined to queer spaces when talking about HIV.
Rogel says people constantly assume he’s gay or questioning.
“More people are shocked to find out that I am straight than they are that I was born HIV-positive,” says Rogel, who has “HIV” proudly tattooed in bold letters on his forearm. “I feel this focus on just gay and bi men takes [away] from the human aspect of the virus.”
Still, he’s a welcome bridge there.
“I think the Latinx community has a long way to go in accepting the LGBT community,” he adds, “as well as understanding that it is a virus that, much like COVID-19, can pass on to any human.”
Dating as a straight young man with HIV, Rogel says, “has been a growing experience. I have had many relationships, and disclosing is the hardest part as it tends to be a deal-breaker for some…. But I have learned how to love myself, and anyone who wants to be in my life is there as a partner. I do not need someone to complete me; rather, I want someone who is complete to build things with.”