My name is Ivan Arizpe. I am 20 years old, and I am queer, Latinx and nonbinary among other things. My story goes back to around the time both my parents were in their late teens and moved to the United States from their hometowns in Mexico. In search of more opportunities and a better life abroad with their families, my parents crossed paths in Houston where they had begun to settle down. Shortly after that, I was born at Ben Taub Hospital in the medical center and Houston became my home. The culture my parents grew up in and knew, also became my own culture as they balanced adjusting into a new society and raising a newborn.
My family’s Mexican heritage was one of the most important aspects in my upbringing, from the big family reunions and “pachangas” (celebrations) we would have, to the traditional food I learned to cook, and even the stories I would hear from life in the “pueblo.” The culture that I experienced shaped me into who I am and played a big role in how I came to understand myself in many ways, including how I understood my own difference. The first times in my childhood when I began to notice myself in comparison to others around me, I had no way of expressing what that felt like.
For example, I liked playing with dolls just as much as I liked transformers, but gender norms would not allow that. Nonetheless, I have memories such as when I was in kindergarten and I convinced my mom to buy me a Powerpuff Girls set from Walgreens that we hid from my dad in the trunk of her car that night until he fell asleep.
These are the memories that stick out most to me because they reflect moments when I have felt most validated for my own way of being. From the moment we are born, we are taught to see ourselves through a tiny lens called “gender” that sees only two things: boys are boys and girls are girls. These labels can limit how we see, understand and grow ourselves because they impose very specific meanings on our bodies and our identities. And on a more serious note, these misunderstandings can create life-threatening violence out of ignorance, whether intentional or unintentional.
My coming out story was unconventional in the sense that I didn’t have a choice in disclosing my queer identity to my family. Before that happened, I never imagined letting myself be completely transparent with my parents about what I actually felt about my sexuality and gender identity. I considered this part of me as something private that I could not or should not share with them or anyone else. Underneath all those concerns, I was also having trouble coming to terms with who the person I am is. I had to embark on a journey of education, acceptance and ultimately self-love while I explored the terrain of my own identity.
When I first learned about the LGBT community through none other than Tumblr in my last year of middle school, I gravitated toward the label of “gay.” At that time, I knew I had always liked “boys” and my experience was all the evidence I needed. I stayed away from the other letters in “LGBT,” and especially the T, because I feared what I didn’t know. I knew the least about gender, how it “works,” what it was, what it could be for me. And all I had known until that moment in my life was my parents’ values and opinions on the subject, none of which had any room for thinking about gender as being something other than a strict binary and something unchangeable. All this to say that growing up in my culture also meant growing up in a culture that misrepresented or did not represent at all people who vary in their gender identity/expression and sexual/romantic orientations.
Although my parents had been supportive of me in many other aspects of my life, they struggled to understand something they knew so little of or knew completely false information about. Since that long and dreadful night of initially coming out, both my mom and my dad have learned to be better advocates for me and for my community. Although I didn’t at first, I tried to put myself in their shoes since their parents probably knew less about these things and had problems that look much more different than ours.
As difficult as it may be, becoming educated and educating those around us about these heavily stigmatized topics can be a powerful tool for changing the way things are. I believe that our experiences, as complex as they may be, should not be limited nor reduced to assumptions about the unknown when the best thing we can do is learn from each other.
In order to understand certain parts of myself as I continued to grow during adolescence, I had to do research to teach myself things that my parents would not. I had to give myself the “sex talk,” find out about queer sexualities through the internet, and navigate complex issues like sexual health, relationships and consent on my own.
I think that’s why it is so important to have these conversations with LGBTQ youth in Latinx/Black communities. Oftentimes, we are already facing barriers to having access to health care due to the structural disadvantages that exist for people of color in the medical establishment. We deserve to be recognized for our experiences, our identities and our realities. We deserve to be informed about our health and the options available for us to ensure a healthy quality of life.
We deserve to have health care providers who understand us on our own terms and recognize our health needs specific to our experiences, our bodies and our consent. We deserve to have accurate and quality information about safe sex practices, about the risks involved in sex, and especially about consent.
As advocates for the health and wellbeing of our communities, we should aim to normalize these important but sometimes difficult conversations and make information accessible to everyone regardless of how they identify. I joined this campaign because I know how hard it is to navigate the world alone and scared. I wanted to speak up about my own story so that others feel empowered to do the same and are able to claim their right to a healthy life in which we don’t have to hide who we are.
I am currently a junior at Rice University studying psychology and the study of women, gender and sexuality. Pursuing higher education was always one of my goals growing up, and although it seemed impossible for me at times, I was ultimately able to accomplish this goal through diligent hard work and perseverance. I decided to commit to these fields because I am passionate about increasing our collective awareness around mental health and understanding how to frame this work around activism for our rights. One of the most valuable things I have learned in school is the power of claiming or reclaiming our history.
I love reading about the history of community-driven movements in the United States, such as the African American civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Chicanx movement, the feminist movement, the LGBT movement and disability rights activism. These all share the common denominator of resistance to power and I think it is necessary that we work together within and across communities in order to create lasting change on our political and social systems. It’s important to recognize our historical roots to not only give credit to those who paved the way for our rights today, but also to draw upon the strengths of these movements and continue their work into the future as we continue to fight for our right to a healthy quality of life. In addition to studying, I work part-time in an educational outreach branch at Rice known as the School Literacy and Culture center that focuses on improving early childhood education through research on practical interventions.
This summer, I worked in creative writing camps hosted by our organization in addition to helping facilitate a conference for local early childhood teachers and administrators to discuss ways of helping both children and educators cope with the aftermath of hurricane Harvey. In the future, I hope to pursue a degree in public health and I think education is an important avenue to address a variety of health disparities.
I volunteer weekly at Ben Taub Hospital in the emergency center through a program called the Patient Discharge Initiative, which I have been a part of since my first semester at Rice. Our mission is to provide medical and social resources to patients who are most vulnerable to barriers in accessing health care. This includes undocumented, uninsured, and/or mostly Latinx/Black people who do not have regular health care providers.
Another program I am very proud and supportive of is the Young Owls Leadership Program at Rice, which is basically a week-long summer camp for Houston ISD high school sophomores to stay on campus and learn about the college experience from advisors who share similar backgrounds and stories. Most of us in the program are first-generation college students, low-income, or underrepresented in higher education.
I think more of these types of opportunities should exist, especially for aspiring high school students who do not have any support outside of school to help them apply and navigate the many obstacles of the college application process. I have also been a tutor for elementary students and middle school students through America Reads, an organization aimed at eliminating disparities in literacy across different communities. I am involved with a newly formed diversity committee at my residential college at Rice to facilitate safer and more inclusive spaces for all students. We plan on hosting diversity dialogues, facilitating discussions around “hot topics” and organizing panels to make visible the stories of those who want to share their experiences as a minority student. This year, I am also a part of the leadership of Rice PRIDE, the gender/sexual/romantic minority organization group on campus that hosts all kinds of events, programming and resources for students in the community.
I am currently not in a relationship because I have chosen to dedicate a lot of time to myself in the name of self-care and love for the time being. Because I am not sexually active, I chose to stop taking PrEP but the option is still there for me if I want to start again. Just as important as it is to know about PrEP, it is also important to know your sexual health status and get tested frequently. I remember the anxiety overload I felt when I first decided to get tested for HIV; what we see, hear, and learn about HIV in the media feeds into the stigma of routinely getting sexual health check-ups and how we should care for ourselves. It’s OK to have these feelings and express them, but we need to understand that we are not alone and that there are many options available to help treat AND prevent HIV.
I think we should destigmatize not only HIV testing, but also living with HIV. The medicine we have available allows people with HIV to live just as long and with the same quality of life as people who do not have HIV. It is important to know your status whether you are negative, positive, or undetectable. Knowing will always be better than not knowing, because then you can take care of yourself and your sexual partners. I first learned about PrEP at Legacy Clinic where I would go to get tested for HIV. It wasn’t until I started to become more sexually active later in college when I (very nervously) asked my doctor about the treatment.
I am thankful that the physician taking care of me at the time was aware of LGBTQ health issues and of PrEP because she explained the medication to me and did not make me feel uncomfortable for asking. This is not the case for many people, especially young people who cannot discuss these matters with their family or who do not have access to competent health care providers. However, as I started to research, I found out that there are many accessible ways to get on PrEP through places like Legacy Clinic and other community health centers, which can offer the medication for free.
Our people deserve and should have access to these options, because we matter, we are here, and we want to live. Our communities should not live in the shadows of shame and misunderstanding, because we have just as much right to exist and claim a healthy life for ourselves in terms of physical AND mental health. James Baldwin, one of my favorite writers, said, “Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” I believe in self-love, in love for one another, and in love as a unifying human experience that can allow us to transcend the misunderstandings we often have of those we know the least about.