“Pride is empowerment, for me. When you take ownership of who you are, what you think and feel, you’ve already won the battle.”

Meet Jesús, the 29-year-old artist who dedicates his time to leading workshops for members of the LGBTQ+ community in Colombia.

Jesús Ruiz is smiling at the camera and holding up a Pride flag behind him
Jesús identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community and works for other members of this community.
Photo: Julián Ruiz for the IRC

A life changing decision

In 2019, Jesús was living in his home country, Venezuela, fulfilling a lifelong dream of completing a degree in art. 

“When I was a child, I remember I liked drawing and painting,” he says. “Then at school I loved art and also everything related to art history. I wondered, “What do you have to study in order to see all this?”

But everything changed in November that year, when he was diagnosed with HIV. In Venezuela, he was able to get diagnosed and obtain medication, but there wasn’t an adequate system for monitoring the disease.

“You receive your medicine but you don’t know whether the treatment is effective, or if it has side effects,” Jesús explains. “I mean, you take it, and you don’t know when you are undetectable or if you are becoming undetectable. There’s no treatment follow up.”

Jesús had already considered moving to Colombia due to difficult living conditions and limited opportunities for professional development in his home country. When he learned that Colombia’s medical care for HIV is more comprehensive, this solidified his decision. 

By the time Jesús got to Bogotá, Colombia’s capital city, it was February 2020, and he found himself in a brand new city, unable to get a job. He experienced a period of intense anxiety and depression.

An exciting opportunity

Things started to look up in June, when Jesús responded to an open call for “community agents'' at Red Somos, an IRC partner organization that serves the LGBTQ+ community. 

Red Somos is committed to advancing the recognition and acceptance of sexual and gender diversity, as well as improving sexual health and empowering communities. This is done through the provision of community services, social research and participation, and political advocacy.

Jesus Ruiz pictured looking into the distance
Jesús left Venezuela in early 2020, just a couple of weeks before the pandemic was declared.
Photo: Julián Ruiz for the IRC

Not long after applying, Jesús found out he’d got the job which meant that the next few months involved training and performing fieldwork assignments in neighboring towns“Everything was new to me, like sexual and reproductive health topics, although I should know about them,” he recalls. “For me, at that moment, it was like school. I learnt, learnt and learnt.”

Specifically, Jesús learned a lot about HIV. By openly discussing the topic and listening to the experiences of others, his perception of his own diagnosis underwent a change“It made me accept my diagnosis and feel empowered by it, rather than being afraid of telling people about it,” he explains. “I know that it is just a part of me; it’s not a problem ”

Jesús even created a video to educate others about undetectability and how one should not fear their diagnosis. Reflecting on his journey, Jesús remembers saying in the video, "A year ago, I wouldn't have made this," acknowledging that he was aware others would watch it.

Helping and inspiring others

Jesús has now been working with Red Somos for three years and has excelled in his role as a community leader. He uses his passion for art to assist others by leading communal arts and crafts sessions that aim to enhance participants’ mental health.

“We use art as a tool for people to reflect upon things we don’t stop to think about, such as how we feel about our body and how we express our emotions,” Jesús says. “Taking everyday stuff and expressing it through art”.

A collection of Jesús' artwork
A selection of Jesús’ artwork.
Photo: Julián Ruiz for the IRC

In addition to conducting art workshops, Jesús also facilitates a group that provides a platform for LGBTQ+ men to openly discuss sexual health and other topics that are often considered taboo. 

For Jesús, the best part of his work is when he can connect with people to build a safe space where everyone can feel supported. “I can talk freely, feeling that whatever I say, I won’t be judged or feel rejected,” he says.

Jesús sits with a participant at one of his workshops.
Jesús with a participant at one of his workshops, held at the Red Somos center. “I like how it’s a sharing space,” he says. “Not people who go to a class and there’s a professor and some students, but a sharing and exchanging space.”
Photo: Julián Ruiz for the IRC

How are the IRC and Red Somos supporting LGBTQ+ communities in Colombia?

In 2022, the IRC partnered with Red Somos to support the "Tu pana te cuida" initiative, which means "Your buddy takes care of you" in English. This program offers protection, prevention, and response services for gender-based violence, specifically aimed at Venezuelans in Colombia or Colombians who have been returned from Venezuela who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community. It provides protection, prevention and response services for gender-based violence, including awareness raising sessions, case management for survivors and psychosocial support groups. Tu pana te cuida also works to strengthen community networks by working with community leaders, creating networks between migrants.