Activist & Singer Jesús Guillén Raises His Voice for Long-Term Survivors
by Hank Trout
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
Born in Ciudad Valles, SLP, Mexico, in 1960, Jesús Guillén was already an accomplished award-winning actor and singer when he moved to the United States in 1984. Given the choice of moving to either Mexico City or Los Angeles, Jesús chose L.A. to broaden his horizons and to further his acting and singing career.
That career, while never abandoned, has taken a backseat to his role as an activist and spokesperson for the LGBTQ Latino community in San Francisco and as a valued representative of the Long-Term Survivors community worldwide.
For Jesús, the road to LGBTQ activism took many unexpected turns and curves. While he tried to nurture his career in Los Angeles, Jesús began the process of naturalization to become a U.S. citizen. He faced the usual difficulties that immigrants all face in this country—no “papers,” no available services, blatant racism. “I wanted to become a citizen because I wanted to vote,” Jesús told me. His application for residency was complicated by his being HIV-positive. At the time, despite the amnesty program he hoped to take advantage of, there was still a ban on entry into the U.S. by anyone who was HIV-positive. The residency application required a blood test. Jesús enlisted a friend to take his anonymous blood test for him. “I’m not proud of breaking the law, but what could I do? I did what I had to in order to survive; I did the right thing to stay alive.”
Citizenship was granted, but not without a small scare. While still not a citizen, Jesús had been working at a travel-and-touring agency in Los Angeles, where his diligence and productivity earned him an expense-paid trip to Ireland. Although he was excited about taking the trip, he was worried about returning. “All I had was my Mexican passport—I was afraid that I might not get back into the country!” The trip went off without incident, however. When he returned, the U.S. Customs official looked over Jesús’s Passport and asked, “You’re working on your papers, aren’t you?” Jesús meekly answered, “Yes,” and the customs agent waved him on through.
Jesús’s sigh of relief still echoes in the corridors of LAX.
Although Jesús had already lived in the U.S. for six years when he moved to San Francisco in 1990, it took some time for him to acclimate himself to the different culture here. “Mexico is a culture based on family,” Jesús told me; “Here, no. People seem to be disconnected from their families. They volunteer and join groups to make up for the lack of family.” With that in mind, he helped to found AGUILAS–Asamblea Gay Unida Impactando Latinos A Superarse—to address the unique needs of the LGBTQ Latino community. The name AGUILAS translates to “Assembly of United Gays Impacting Latinos Towards Self-Empowerment.” Today, AGUILAS is a nonprofit organization and the largest gay Latino organization in the San Francisco Bay Area. Among other programs, AGUILAS sponsors El Ambiente, an HIV prevention program created by and for gay and bisexual Latino men.
The first time I met Jesús was on the Thursday before Pride Weekend 2015. Along with a couple dozen other folks from Let’s Kick A.S.S., we stood in line at the Castro Theatre before the premiere of the documentary Desert Migration. It was difficult not to see Jesús in the crowd: At six-foot-one, with a shock of bright yellow hair, wearing white pants and a brightly multi-colored blousy shirt accented with a flowy scarf, his rich brown eyes scanning the tops of heads in the crowd, he appeared absolutely regal, a monarch surveying his subjects, blessing their adulatory remarks by nodding or breaking into a beautiful, infectious grin, often hugging admirers who broke through the crowd to get to him. It was clear that Jesús is revered in this community. As I’ve gotten to know Jesús over the last year, I’ve come to respect the gentle, generous, loving man inside that imposing exterior.
“So,” I asked Jesús, “what happened to your acting and singing career when you came to San Francisco?”
“Yeah! What happened?!” he laughed. Although he has produced and been the subject of many photo sessions, he hasn’t done much acting here in San Francisco. He has, however, continued singing and composing. Upon arriving, he immediately joined Coro Hispano de San Francisco, the Latino choral group, which has also performed some of Jesús’s compositions. He has sung at the Gay Latino Festival of Music and Art, in Oakland, as well as other music festivals in the Bay Area. Jesús delighted me and other Long-Term Survivors in May when he sang his heart-wrenching anthem “Surviving Still” at a dinner sponsored by Project Open Hand honoring the LTS community. With his deep rumbling bass voice, he has also done extensive voice-over work for local animators and video game programmers.
“My composing and singing have always been an escape for me,” Jesús said. “These days, my activism takes up most of my time, but I still love to sing. And when I can combine my art with my activism, that’s when I feel the best.”
Jesús’s activism in the Long-Term Survivors community began about ten years ago. He first got involved with the San Francisco HIV Planning Commission in 2006. He noticed, though, that most of the discussion in the Commission was about preventing new infections and that, while that was worthy work, the unique needs of people already living with HIV, and particularly those who had lived with it since the 1980s and ’90s, were being ignored. He traveled as a San Francisco representative to New York City for training at the ACRIA (AIDS Community Research Initiative of America) Center on HIV and Aging. He learned from Hannah Tessema that ACRIA and others in New York were already beginning to address the unique needs of Long-Term Survivors.
“When we returned to San Francisco to make our report, no one wanted to hear that someplace else was doing a better job for long-term survivors than San Francisco was doing!”
Not one to be deterred by a little resistance, Jesús pushed on, testifying on behalf of Long-Term Survivors at the Board of Supervisors, the HIV Planning Commission, the SF Commission on Aging, the Dignity Fund, and other agencies and community groups.
About a year ago, Jesús was Googling information about services available to Long-Term Survivors. He found the group, The Graying of HIV, but not much else. He was frustrated by the lack of any vehicle where Long-Term Survivors could connect and share their stories, their strategies for surviving, etc.
Enter Facebook. Jesús set up a private, closed group on Facebook—the HIV LONG TERM SURVIVORS page. He envisioned a place where the LTS community could meet one another, share their stories of struggle and triumph, seek information from their peers, share news stories about HIV treatments and advances toward a cure, and most importantly, share a communal place where survivors would feel welcome and safe and treasured. He saw the page as a means for survivors all around the world to combat the isolation and loneliness many of us feel, especially those survivors who live in rural areas or in countries where simply being gay is dangerous, who don’t have the opportunity to share experiences and information. “I wanted to set up a page where other survivors could feel welcome and safe; I wanted people who use the page to be able to say, ‘This is my home, this is part of my life, I belong here, I can come here and be welcome and loved.’”
In less than a year, as of this writing, the group has grown to over 2,600 members. “I expected that we might draw about 200, maybe 300 members. I had no idea we would grow so big so quickly,” Jesús said.
Maintaining the group as a welcoming, safe place for all has been Jesús’s goal from day one. Speaking of the three administrators who safeguard the page, “We reject postings that are overtly sexual in nature, because we don’t want the page to turn into a ‘meat market.’ There are other places for HIV-positive folks to hook-up—that’s not us.” And while the page is an ideal venue for survivors to ask each other questions and to seek out survival strategies, members who ask questions regarding medications, symptoms, or other medical issues are instructed to take up the issue with their private physicians. “Any time someone asks a question that begins with ‘Should I tell my doctor about…,’ the answer is ‘YES, talk with your doctor.’” Jesús went on, “Someday, it would be great if we had a staff of people to whom we could refer medical questions, another to whom we can send questions about available services, another where we can refer dating questions or legal questions. But not yet.”
“Just what qualifies one as a Long-Term Survivor?” is an issue that often comes up in the discussions on the HIV LONG TERM SURVIVORS page. Five years with an HIV diagnosis? Ten years? Only those diagnosed before the “cocktails”? Aiming to make the group as inclusive as possible, Jesús’s mission statement reads, “This is a group for all people that identify as long-term survivors of HIV/AIDS worldwide.We are open to any gender, race, sex and sexual preference.” That definition includes our brothers and sisters who are HIV-negative themselves but who are wounded warriors from the 1980s and ’90s as surely as we HIV-positive folks are. “We have to remember that it wasn’t just HIV-positive folks who fought and lived through the worst years of the epidemic,” Jesús said. “Even HIV-negative folks lost friends and family and lovers just as we did. They suffered the same grief and loss and the same PTSD that many of us suffer from. This is no time to exclude them just because they are negative.”
Jesús pointed out one quality of the HIV LONG TERM SURVIVORS page that makes it unique. “The LTS group is a 24/7 thing,” Jesús said. “Other groups—even the great ones like Shanti and Honoring Our Experience and the Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network—they all do great work and sponsor terrific retreats and events. But you go to one of their events, and when it’s over, you’re alone again, the party’s over. But our group is there for people twenty-four hours a day, every day. You can access it when you want to or need to. We have regulars who check in every day, checking up on other members.”
As an adjunct to running the HIV LONG TERM SURVIVORS page on Facebook, Jesús has also set up a new project to honor Long-Term Survivors. “We want to make a quilt, this time not to honor our fellow members gone, but to honor our surviving members, meaning you and me, a quilt made of little pieces of an old garment.” The idea is to collect swatches of material from a shirt or blouse from Long-Term Survivors and sew them into a large quilt. No names, no photos, no slogans, just swatches of material from a garment worn by one of us Long-Term Survivors—literally stitching our DNA into a commemorative piece of art.
“We’re asking survivors to mail us a piece of cloth, at least six inches by six inches square, from clothing they’ve worn. We’re hoping to sew together a large quilt that can be displayed to honor our survivors.”
Since being profiled in the San Francisco Chronicle’s documentary Last Men Standing [A&U, May 2016], Jesús has been “meeting people at higher levels,” including policy-makers, politicians, movers, shakers, always striving to make use of his time in the spotlight to benefit others. Already he has traveled with the filmmakers to festivals in Portland and Los Angeles; in July, he traveled with Last Men Standing to Durban, South Africa for the XXI International AIDS Conference.
“People respect what I’m doing and what I say because they know it’s coming from my heart,” Jesús told me. “I’m not looking for personal advancement, not looking for a job or a career. I do this for my community, for my new family. This is what I can do to make a difference.”
You can find the Long-Term Survivors Facebook group at www.facebook.com/groups/466278376873515/. Jesús encourages all Long-Term Survivors to participate in the LTS Quilt by mailing a 6” x 6” swatch of clothing to Jesús Guillén, 300 Buchanan Street #209, San Francisco, California, 94102.
Hank Trout edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-six-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.