The first time they met was at the International Conference on AIDS two summers ago in Washington, D.C., and Kathryn Mercado was convinced she would not get along with Kimberly Ramirez, based on what she now admits was "a school yard crush in the making."
They met again last September at the United States Conference on AIDS, held in New Orleans, Louisiana, specifically, the National Latino AIDS Action Network ( NLAAN ) reception, and Ramirez was a part of the hosting committee for the event.
"I remember spotting her as soon as I walked in," Mercado said. "I also remembered that I didn't think we would get along."
But still, having a conversation with Ramirez was Mercado's mission for the night.
Time passed and so did opportunities. They even made eye contact, but still nothing.
Finally, near the end of the evening, Mercado approached Ramirez. "All I could think to say was, 'I think I remember you from last year from D.C.'"
The ice was broken, and when a group from the event ventured out to Bourbon Street for a late-night drink, it was simply another getting-to-know-each-other opportunity for Mercado and Ramirez.
"I was relieved to find out we did get along and how much more time I wanted to spend with her," Mercado said.
But the next day Mercado was heading home to Chicago, and Ramirez to Los Angeles.
"It was easy to keep in touch every day since we worked in the same field; all of our nonprofit talk helped ignite our sparks [personally]," Mercado said.
Soon, Ramirez was visiting Mercado in the Midwest, and by last Christmas, Mercado went west to see Ramirez.
"It didn't take very long for me to fall in love with her," Mercado said. "All of her passion for education, career goals, and pushing herself to her fullest potential made her so unique. The distance allowed us to get to know each other slowly but substantially."
Ramirez this spring moved to Chicago, to further her career and the budding relationship with Mercado.
"Our relationship has already become one of my greatest investment of time and love," Mercado said.
"I was quickly intrigued by her knowledge and passion for HIV/AIDS education and prevention," Ramirez said. "Little did I know [in New Orleans] how much my life would change."
Ramirez, 27, is an HIV patient navigator at Mt. Sinai Hospital
Mercado, nicknamed Kat, 26, is the assistant manager of prevention at CALOR, a division of the Anixter Center, a job she's held for three years. Mercado is a Chicago native who graduated from Resurrection High School.
The two are now dating, a mix of Ramirez' Salvadoran Mexican-American roots with Mercado's Puerto Rican lineagebrought together through each of their work on behalf of the HIV/AIDS community.
"It's nice to come home and vent about challenges to someone who can relate and knows how I feel. I think we are interested in advocacy in general, so it's made it easy to share ideas and beliefs," Mercado said.
Ramirez added, "I love that we both work in the same field. I get to vent and get advice on programmatic issues. She understands the stress that comes with working in this field and reminds me about self-care."
And yes, their jobs intertwine. "The HIV/AIDS community is smaller than the LGBT scene, so whether it is through programming, large testing initiatives, trainings, or community meetings, our jobs intertwine all of the time," Mercado said.
Mercado said Ramirez has helped her "believe that I can achieve life goals, [such as] finishing school, and has been a huge support in getting that plan into action."
Ramirez added, "Kat has been a huge support with my career. Once I moved to Chicago, she helped connect me with local HIV/AIDS non-profits and trainings from the Chicago Department of Public Health. Now as I contemplate going back to graduate school, she has pushed me to apply and put myself out there."
Mercado said she truly enjoys working with youth, certainly a flashback to her childhood, when she didn't know many gay people. "Being able to access an environment that promotes a safe space to explore sexual preferences, meet people who share similar experiences and learn about building a community together is something I would have dreamed of [while] growing up," Mercado said.
"There is a disconnect that the younger LGBT generation has to the epidemic HIV. Since we were not born in a time where we saw so many people die from this disease, it is easy to get lost in the message of HIV prevention. It is important for me to educate this generation about the history of HIV and the risk we might face by forgetting about it. Empowering today's youth to feel capable and confident to negotiate their sex lives and make decisions that are healthy for them is what I get most from working with youth."
Mercado also noted that there certainly has been a strong push of late surrounding HIV/AIDS stigma through safer sex campaigns, movies that touch on the subject, and other community organizations offering club-based outreach and testing.
"I would say a negative trend would be new technology like dating apps that have filters for men who are HIV-positive or HIV-negative," Mercado said. "I think categorizing people based off their status perpetuates the HIV/AIDS stigma. There is an attitude among today's youth that HIV is not something they need to be worried about anymore, even though we know people are still being infected daily."
Ramirez added, "A trend I see with youth about HIV/AIDS is that they don't consider anal and oral sex as 'sex.' They think they are not putting themselves at risk, which isn't true. There is a lot of misinformation about STD's and HIV/AIDS with youth. I feel there needs to be better sexual health education in school."
Ramirez' job involved identifying patients who test positive within Sinai Health System. She then serves as a counselor and health educator to the patient, engage [patients] into HIV primary medical care, case management, early intervention services, partner services, mental health services, and support groups. She work collaboratively with case managers, early intervention specialists, and infectious diseases physicians to ensure optimal care and facilitate long-term retention in HIV care. "Help people living with HIV/AIDS engage in HIV care and achieve HIV treatment success," is her job role, she said. "I provide one-on-one risk reduction counseling to high-risk individuals to decrease HIV infection."
Ramirez said the best part of her job is simply addressing health disparities "that disproportionality affect my community, and improving access to care for communities of color."
Mercado, meanwhile, coordinates a Centers of Disease Control-funded grant called A.C.E., serving young men of color who have sex with other men in the Chicagoland area. "The goal of the program is to reach young men who are at high risk of HIV infection and empower them through sex-positive education, community building, and routine HIV testing," she said. "Identifying young men in these communities who are HIV-positive and are unaware of their status, as well as linking them into care is another key component of the program. All of this is accomplished by hosting social events, community testing events, club based outreach, and offering incentive and referral based programming to help address disparities and barriers this population is faced with."
Mercado said the best part of her job is simply being able to offer free services to a community in need, which makes her job "very satisfying."
Mercado was chosen to participate in the Public Health Boot Camp: Fostering the Future HIV Leaders, hosted by DePaul University, the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, and the Chicago Department of Public Health, held in June.
"Being able to address all the barriers that gay and bi men of color face when accessing education, healthcare, and other free services, [such as] HIV testing," is a challenge, Mercado said. "HIV in communities of color still face a lot of stigma. Being [gay] in these same communities is also stigmatized. Taking in account all the social determinants preventing this population to access the service we provide has been the most challenging and the most educating."