Relationship Status: Married
Neighborhood: Printer's Row
Activities: Director of Community Health Sciences University of Illinois, School of Public Health; author of Queer Aging, LGBT Aging Issues Network ( LAIN )
Windy City Times: What does family of choice mean in your personal life?
Dr. Jesus Ramirez-Valles: Friends, family, my closest friends. I have family of choice in Mexico who I've known my whole life, and then my husband's family of choice here in North America. I also have a 16-year-old son who has our family of choice as his extended family. So he has aunties and uncles who are part of his life. Many of my family of choice members are gay or lesbian, but not all.
WCT: Are there ways in which your family of choice differ between Mexico and North America?
JR-V: Not really, they both show up during the difficult times and we know they will be there for us. There's a difference in closeness because in Mexico, if you don't show up to an event, or no one has heard from you, they will come knock on your door to check in. In North America people will text or make a call, because everyone is so busy. It's more difficult to see each other day to day. With family of choice in Mexico, the relationships are more flexible, you don't have to worry about schedules.
WCT: How do you anticipate your families of choice staying connected in the future?
JR-V: We will all move in together! [Laughs]
WCT: [Laughs] Is that a plan you have agreed upon, or wishful thinking?
JR-V: Well we have discussed living together, but there are more conversations to have. My husband and I want to move to Mexico in our elder years for a number of reasons. The cost of living is lower, medications are less expensive, and we can find people to wheel us around, and take care of us for much less money. So hopefully we will live amongst our family of choice and support each other as we age. We want everyone to be close so we can be there for each other.
Having a 16-year-old son is a constant reminder that I am aging and changing. I exercise and do yoga and tai chi to care for my physical and spiritual health. But I know we won't have as high a quality of life if we grow older in North America.
WCT: In writing your book, Queer Aging, you interviewed many gay men to explore their aging process. Were there any common experiences of family of choice?
JR-V: Yes, absolutely. For LGBTQ people, we have family of choice throughout our lives. For many men, living through the AIDS crisis, they had lost all of their family of choice. I spoke with people who had lost everyonemaybe their 10 closest friends, lovers, and had no one left. In gay male communities, sexual relationships are often the start of lifelong connections. So maybe you meet and hook up, and then you become buddies or friends or family. During the height of the HIV epidemic, sex was different; people had to be careful. And the loss was profound, so families of choice took a very long time to rebuild.
WCT: Was your experience similar to those of the men you interviewed?
JR-V: Yes; I never thought about living beyond 40. When I came out, and I was in the bars, it was all about the young people. Older people were called dinosaurs, and now that I'm in my 50s it is very different. Much of gay culture is focused on being young, being fit, and active. I came to studying aging through my passion for HIV research. The profound loss we experienced during that time made family of choice difficult to find. And as an immigrant, I truly had no one when I came to this country, so it was even harder in many ways.
WCT: The title of the book is Queer Aging, but gay men is the only group studied. Can you share why?
JR-V: The book is called Queer Aging because not all of the men were comfortable with the term gay. For many gay men of color you will not hear words like "partner" or "boyfriend." You may hear "roommate" or "friend," so even though they were same-gender loving primarily, it wasn"t accurate to label them all "gay". The book focuses on the experiences of queer and gay men, approximately half of whom are HIV positive. It would have also been impossible to comprehensively study the experiences of women, and transgender people under this same title, so we are looking at a subset of LGBTQ community in the book.
WCT: What advice would you have for LGBTQ people trying to develop family of choice?
JR-V: At the end of the day, social connection matters the most. Today it is considered "easy" to stay in touch, but I'm not sure how in-depth those connections are. What matters is the social connection, that we stick together. This is going to be difficult because LGBTQ communities are being absorbed into the dominant culture. Things have changed tremendously. I'm not sure how much longer we'll be able to remain a distinct community.
Queer Aging is scheduled for release Friday, July 15. Pre-orders available on Amazon. Stay up to date on the book and 'Gayby Boomers' by subscribing to Dr. Ramirez-Valles blog at http://gaybyboomers.blogspot.com/.
Interviews are conducted by guest Jacqueline Boyd, owner of The Care Plan, believed to be the country's first LGBTQ-centered healthcare management company. The Care Plan can be reached at 630-479-0083 or www.the-care-plan.com .