Cure Chronicles Episode 6: Raif Derrazi

The Cure Chronicles: HIV with Rafi Derrazi

Raif is an HIV/AIDS activist and natural physique bodybuilder who refused to be a victim of his diagnosis and inspires others to become their best selves.

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Jeff Galvin: Welcome to the Cure Chronicles. I'm Jeff Galvin, your host, and today I'm excited to be joined by Raif Derrazi, an HIV/AIDS advocate, vlogger, fitness model, and natural physique bodybuilder. In 2012, on his birthday, Raif was diagnosed with HIV. Following his diagnosis, Raif refused to let the virus control his life. He built his strength in physical fitness through bodybuilding and started sharing his experiences online in the hopes of inspiring others to become their best selves, no matter the circumstances. 

Today, Raif is a host on Plus Life Media, a multi-platform brand dedicated to bringing conversations about HIV back into the mainstream and ending HIV stigma. He has partnered with organizations like AIDS Healthcare Foundation and NMAC in an effort to change how people view living with HIV and is set to be an ambassador representing the U.S at the Gay Games in Hong Kong next year.

Raif, thank you for joining us today. 

Raif Derrazi: Yeah, I'm excited to be here. Thanks for having me.

Jeff Galvin: So, I gotta say right off the bat, the thing that just struck me about your story arc that I thought was amazing is you get this diagnosis of HIV on your birthday in 2012. I mean, um, you know that just to me is ironic in a way. But then, you decide to use it as a launching pad to become healthier than everybody else. I mean, what you've done since then is just amazing. Right? You're a model and a bodybuilder, and you know, just really, uh, you've gone the exact opposite direction of the way that people expect when folks get sick, right? Which I just think is amazing. What drove you, what inspired you? What, you know, what was it? Give us some of the details about how you made that transition.

Raif Derrazi: Yeah, so to be technically accurate, I was diagnosed with HIV the week before my birthday, and then on my birthday, I was diagnosed with AIDS. So that was like, holy…

Jeff Galvin: Oh my gosh. 

Raif Derrazi: So at that point, I really had to take some time to myself to first of all, get my body back to normal, take my medication. It was like the immediate emergency steps, which I did, and my body recovered rather quickly. In like six to nine months, I was, I think, undetectable, and my immune system was recovering. 

And in that first year, I ended up breaking my ankle, and so I was bedridden for five and a half, six months, and I had a lot of time to do a lot of introspection. I did a lot of dream journaling and gratitude journaling and reading self-help books and all this stuff. And I kind of essentially came to the conclusion that I had been living the majority of my life with a victim mentality, because I was legitimately a victim. As a kid, I went through a lot of trauma, and I learned that that behavior I could use that to my advantage growing up into adolescence and into my teenage years. I was using being a victim to get what I needed or what I wanted or sympathy or what have you. 

And it ended up becoming a crutch into adulthood, so that I literally became a physical manifestation of a victim with my AIDS diagnosis. And so, I knew at that point, if anything was going to change, I had to change my mindset from being a victim to being the leader of my life, to being the ultimate responsible person for my experience of life. 

That meant a lot of changes mentally, emotionally, and then part of that equation was my body, my physical health. So, that's when I really just dove into going to the gym. I had no idea what I was doing, you know, I would jump from machine to machine and just kind of go through the motions, and eventually, I happened upon a personal trainer who ended up training me, and they encouraged me to compete as well, and then it just went from there.

Jeff Galvin: That’s amazing because you know what you’re telling me is like “Oh, you only saw half the story. Well, actually, a quarter of the story.” First of all, it wasn't just HIV, which is bad enough to get that diagnosis, but you already had clinical symptoms of AIDS. I mean, you were in a potentially vulnerable state at that point, and so you were coming back from real depths. This wasn't like a lot of people like; it's just absolutely shocking. 

I would imagine to get an HIV diagnosis, and a lot of people get it from a blood test for something else. But, you know, they usually find out before and maybe this isn't a good thing. They usually find out before it becomes a serious health problem for them that they've got the HIV virus inside of them. And I do find that a lot of people seem to bury their head in the sand a little bit, but you didn't have that choice. So, that's like there's one half right there. 

Okay, now let's take that to the second power. You didn't just go to heal your body, you healed your mind. You took a journey that, man, all of us need that journey. All of us need to examine our lives and figure out how we can essentially get control of our lives and build the future that we want, take responsibility for it and just become the masters of our own future, whatever that future is. And there are so many ways, and there are so many futures that are fantastic. 

You didn't let that devastating week around that birthday in 2012 knock you off course. As a matter of fact, just the opposite, you use that time to completely redesign your future. You're super young right now. At least, I don't know how old you are. But how old were you when you got the diagnosis? 

Raif Derrazi: I was 27; I'll be 37 on May 8th.

Jeff Galvin: Holy cow. Okay, well, I mean obviously you can pass for a college kid, and I got my beauty filter turned way up, but you know, maybe I don’t look as old as I really am, but 37 to me is pretty young. Anyway, you look fantastic. That’s great.

Jeff Galvin: That’s just one aspect of it, but I love that story about you thinking about your childhood and the habits you had brought into your life that maybe weren’t going to lead to a happy life, even if you hadn’t gotten HIV or AIDS.

What do you think about that?

Raif Derrazi: Yeah, I firmly believe that life gives us ample opportunity to, as you said, take a chance to reevaluate who we are, our strengths, our weaknesses, and improve upon things and fix things in ourselves.

We get ample chances from life in the form of little whispers and little nudges, and as time goes on, if we don't address the issues in ourselves, those nudges get turned into a shove, and a push, and a kick until you get beaten down with a situation like this where it's like, okay, well, you either fix this, or you're done, you're toast. And I, unfortunately, had to get to that point before I could really reevaluate and change things.

Jeff Galvin: They say sometimes people don't change until they feel low in their life like that. Like, you find out that people finally stop drinking when they wake up in jail, finding out that they injured somebody or even killed somebody and that changes their life. Fortunately, your thing was entirely internal, right? You didn’t have to worry about the impact that you had on others around you from bad habits, or what you might consider bad habits, and by bad habits I mean the mentality. You just looked at yourself and you said, okay, here I am at this point, here's where I want to be, and you plotted the course there.

Raif Derrazi: Yeah, I do want to clarify too, not to give the impression that I did something to deserve getting AIDS or something like that, or that like, because I had a victim mindset, I got AIDS. It was more about my decision making along the way and not standing up for my physical health, my emotional health, and like making decisions that weren't good for me like staying in a relationship, for example, that I knew was unhealthy and I knew that there were trust issues there. And not listening to those red flags. And then after my AIDS diagnosis, finding out okay, this person had been cheating. Had I had the self-worth to remove myself from that situation, then maybe that wouldn't have happened to begin with.

Jeff Galvin: So glad you clarified that because I didn't even realize I was giving that impression. There is so much stigma around HIV that people always ask that question. Sometimes I forget that that might be the first thing on people's minds. It's like, well, how did you get it? 

So there are straight guys with it, and that's, you know, they have this fear that people are going to assume that I'm gay. Not that that would make, you know, what's the big deal. But at the same time, like, they have a stigma about being associated. And this is something that's so critical to break. And I notice that that's a whole other part of the life that you've built, is in advocating within this community and working to break the stigma. So I think it was really important that you made that crystal clear because I think I was being a little bit fuzzy in my questioning, but I didn't mean to go that direction with it.

You know, I think of it more as, I see so many similarities in your arc with just every other person on earth. That's what I mean to say, is that you had some habits that weren't leading to a fulfilling life of your own design, and everybody has that, right? And your boyfriend was cheating on you. I mean, come on. 

You know, if every woman that's listening to this doesn't go like, "Yo, I know what that's like," right? I'd be really surprised because they either it's happened to them or a friend of theirs or whatever. And so okay, they were lucky maybe not to come away with some physical damage, but the mental damage, you know? Dealing with this is just about dealing with life, and that's why I find your story so inspirational.

Jeff Galvin: I just think that you took the classic somebody gives you a lemon and you turn it into lemonade. You use something that some people just don't understand what it would even feel like to hear those words, right? And, oh, that didn't send you into despair. You use it as a springboard to go represent us at the Gay Olympics in Hong Kong. You know, and to you, you must be, if you don't mind me saying, incredibly proud of all your accomplishments at this point. I mean, what are you most excited about?

Raif Derrazi: Well, recently, I was nominated for, well, I should say technically the interview that I was a part of was nominated. It's a Today show's interview, it was called "HIV/AIDS 40 Years Later", and it was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award for outstanding journalism TV segment. 

And then also a media platform that I'm a part of, Plus Life Media, it's also on ABC's localist channel. I host a fitness segment for that. The show does a lot of educating around HIV, reducing stigma, encouraging tolerance, and then also just kind of like lifestyle stuff for anyone that anybody can relate to. That was also nominated, one of our segments. 

So two GLAAD Media Award nominations this year. I went to the GLAAD Media Awards in LA and I got to sport a jacket that I made. I didn't make the jacket. I put rhinestones in the shape of a red ribbon on the lapel and on the back, I wrote "HIV positive and free." And so I could just do some advocacy on the red carpet. And then I'm going to also go to New York for the GLAAD Media Awards there where they will announce the winner for those categories. So, knock on wood.

Jeff Galvin: Good luck. 

Raif Derrazi: So that's just something I'm insanely proud of right now.

Jeff Galvin: Is this like the beginning of an acting career for you? You know, even representing reality is a form of acting communication. It sounds like you got the chops.

Raif Derrazi: It's funny that you say that because I studied theater in high school and in community college, and I went to musical theater training at UCLA. So I absolutely love acting. It's just the way it was in LA and Hollywood when I decided to go out auditioning, I wasn't really given a chance. I didn't really know what my brand was or who I was, to be honest. But it's always something in the back of my mind that I'm definitely open to circling back to that eventually if the opportunity presents itself.

Jeff Galvin: Yeah, I think you're going to get a lot of interesting opportunities obviously, but I hope that one comes back around, and you can get a chance to grab onto it if you want. It is really amazing that all this good stuff isn't what you expect. You interview somebody who's HIV positive and was diagnosed with AIDS, and you expect it to be a really depressing situation. And in some ways, I wonder if there are a lot of people out there that get that diagnosis that can identify with you that could take some really good ideas from what you're communicating.

Jeff Galvin: What is your sense of when somebody gets a diagnosis like this, sort of the average person out there that doesn't necessarily react to it in the positive way that you did, what are some of the challenges about that moment of recognition? Can you give me any sense of feelings that you could relate to even though you reacted to them in a different way?

Raif Derrazi: Yeah, for sure. I get these kinds of messages and concerns all the time from people who are newly diagnosed. The first one I can think of is not feeling like they can talk to anybody about it, whether it's their friends, family, co-workers, for whatever reason.

And then some people don't have health insurance, and they're like, "Oh my gosh, I can't even get medication." They have no concept of the programs that are available at their disposal. 

Then there's romance and dating and love life, like, "Oh my gosh, I'm gonna be single forever, or I have to find someone who has HIV who I can settle for basically." 

And then there's the fitness aspect, like, "I'm never gonna be able to work out, I'm never going to be able to take supplements or do anything like that for myself." 

So it's a very harsh perception of reality that's just not true in a lot of ways.

I can tell you a story that happened in the last year. I had a mother and her son, who was diagnosed with HIV, and his sister both reached out to me independently on Instagram, saying, "Hey, we've been following you for a while. We know that this person also follows you, who has HIV. They're in Europe, in the Netherlands, and we really want them to come back home to us in the States, but they're really depressed, and they don't think that they have access to medication, and so we're really worried about this person's mental health." So I had a chance to reach out and let him know, "You know, we have programs in the U.S where you can get medication, you can get the help you need, and you can go to school and live your life normally and be a normal kid." After providing them some resources, it completely changed his mindset, and he was able to come back home. His mom reached out and said, "Thank you so much."

Jeff Galvin: This is a really touching story, and I'm so happy to hear another positive story out of all this. 

Raif Derrazi: It highlights the reality of a lot of people's perception of it, and that the family and loved ones also don't know anything either. 

Jeff Galvin: It was sort of an amazing thing too that his sister and his mom were reaching out in that way, that they wanted to come home, they were overcoming their naivete about HIV. They probably weren't preparing for that day, but then it happens to them, and instead of reacting in the negative way that a lot of people feel will happen to them when they try to share something with their family, those two people went the opposite way and they reached out to you. What a beautiful conclusion to that whole event, but no, we need way more of those. 

But what I loved is that you said you went through this long litany of things that people believe, and then you said, "And most of that's wrong." 

Raif Derrazi: Yeah.

Jeff Galvin: So what you're saying is that, if I'm getting you right, is that other people could take your life as an inspiration and actually emulate portions of it. You just seem to be this amazing case of bouncing back, but what you're saying is that everybody can bounce back and have a decent life even here in the United States. That they can get health care, right? They can get on the ACA or whatever. 

They can have normal relationships, can't they? Because people don't realize a lot of times that when folks are well controlled, they're not contagious, and that there have been a lot of couples where one of them is HIV positive and the other one isn't, and they've been around for a long, long time being intimate, and they haven't passed it because of that fact. 

Raif Derrazi: And even having a negative child. 

Jeff Galvin: That's another thing that came out on a recent interview that I had with Susan Cole. She had five children, two of them after her diagnosis, and neither one of them had HIV. And in fact, with the right precautions, with being really careful about, again, antiretroviral treatment, which is widely available, maybe you have to make some effort to get the insurance and get on it and whatever, and there's some areas that are more amenable to it than others, right? I heard that if you're living in New York City, there's a lot of response from the government and from support organizations in order to help people to find a normal life. Okay, the Deep South maybe not so much. Might be a good reason to move to another location. I don't know. Where are you? Where do you reside?

Raif Derrazi: I'm in downtown L.A.

Jeff Galvin: So also another good spot. Yeah, yeah, okay. Um, yeah, I think that's the story that you told, the person went all the way to Amsterdam. Was that a reaction to where they had grown up in the U.S or just that many misunderstandings or just a need to hide away? I mean, what drove them?

Raif Derrazi: I think they were already studying abroad when they got the diagnosis. They just didn't feel comfortable coming back home.

Jeff Galvin: So, as you advise people, what are the things in your toolbox that you keep going back to to help folks to deal with their diagnosis and their status? Are you writing a book yet? And you have a book you wanna pitch or advertise on the show? Or are there some things that you can kind of tease out for folks?

Raif Derrazi: Typically, I will suggest some things. I often will direct people to my YouTube channel because I do go through a lot of individual things, whether it's specifically supplements or being undetectable and the issue of disclosure, disclosing your status to intimate partners. And then just like gratitude journaling and I kind of go into all these things there.

It's just, it's such a holistic approach and yeah, it applies to everybody. It's basically what everybody should be doing for their own mental health. So, it's all those same general things that can apply to everybody, really. And then the more specific HIV things are just being able to link them to resources so that they know that there's some tangible support out there.

A lot of people, I find, on top of all that just need the permission to be like, "Yes, you can go after your fitness. Yes, you can tell the person that you're dating that you are HIV positive. You can do that." Yeah, I allow that for you, and then people feel empowered and like, "Okay, I did it and it was great and it worked out or it didn't work out but I'm glad I did it." 

Jeff Galvin: So, at least at that point, they can remove themselves from a non-sustainable situation if they have the bravery to go ahead and just be themselves.

Raif Derrazi: And a lot of that sense of feeling permission is just about visibility of role model of seeing someone that they can relate to taking certain steps and then being able to relate to that and say, "Okay, now I can do it too because this other person is." 

Jeff Galvin: Yeah, that's right. I think role models are a big thing, and the encouragement that you're giving. I mean, YouTube is sort of the modern version of writing a book, right? It's in some ways, it's even more compelling and more accessible. Definitely include your YouTube channel on this video so people can check it out.

And I think the other point that you made is absolutely true because I'm sitting here, so I'm not gay and I'm not HIV positive, but I love all the things that you're saying. You know, the idea of having gratitude, the idea of thinking about your mental health because one of the biggest issues is that because it's invisible, like everybody knew your ankle was broken and you know so they understood that you needed to heal and your ankle needed to be taken care of. But the problem with mental health is it's not tangible the same way, and people forget that an injury that's causing you pain, there that doesn't get any attention festers and can be crippling, you know? 

And so, your ankle is fine because it got the right treatment and obviously, your mind is strong too because it got what it needed as well. But that's something that's so neglected, and so I'd really encourage everybody to go ahead and tune in on some of those things.

Do you ever talk about your personal story in those? I guess you do.

Raif Derrazi: Oh yeah, a lot. 

Jeff Galvin: Yeah, because I think that's another thing that people are really missing out on an opportunity to gain more empathy for their fellow humankind. HIV is just one challenge that many different people face, and I think watching your videos could be a great way to break the stigma, to see also the variety of life that you enjoy and represent, and that the encouragement that you give for people to just go ahead and meet yourself and admit who you are, and that's okay, and that's good, right? 

Because I think the last thing is to understand that whatever it is that they are, as long as they're not out to hurt other people, that is okay and that is good, and they are valuable as human beings, and they deserve to have all the things that you have accrued for yourself. 

Raif Derrazi: Yeah, and the reality is you can have all the education, all the knowledge, all the support, all the resources in the world, but if at the end of the day you don't have enough self-worth, then it doesn't matter. You're not going to make the decisions that are going to benefit you in the long term.

Jeff Galvin: That's a big one. That's a big thing that you know to bite off though because I meet so many people that are just basically insecure. I mean, we all, I don't know what your childhood was like, but so many people didn't get that kind of positive reinforcement from their parents, and as a result, they didn't develop the kind of self-esteem that you're exhibiting right here, right? And that you know, and I hope you're deeply feeling that, right? You don't even have to do all the great stuff that you've done to feel good about yourself, right? We are all significant and equally significant in the universe, right? When you think from a universal perspective or a religious perspective or a spiritual perspective, we all have equal value inside of us, and I love the idea that you found your own personal happiness, right? And that you've also found a place to help other people find their happiness, and that that happiness could be anything they pick out for themselves. Like the L'Oreal ad, is, you know, says they're worth it, right? They're worth it as human beings.

Jeff Galvin: What sort of following do you have on YouTube? I mean, is this like, you must have millions of people watching you right now?

Raif Derrazi: No, I've had millions of views, but I have around, I think, like 20,000 subscribers on YouTube and 25,000 on Instagram. 

Jeff Galvin: It's terrific.

Raif Derrazi: It’s a modest amount.

Jeff Galvin: That is a serious following for sure, but I gotta be honest that I am really surprised that it's not more, but I know it takes time to build momentum, and the only reason I'm surprised it's not more is because of the value of the things that you're saying. I mean, I'm really, you know, I'm just so impressed. I feel like it's almost reinforcing things in me to hear your story, that it's reminding me of maybe some of the things that I do for myself to try to keep myself feeling okay with all the challenges of life, because we all have our own, yeah, right?

Yeah, and with 38 million people out there with HIV, everybody deserves that message. 

Raif Derrazi: We’ll get there.

Jeff Galvin: They got to get on that site internationally, but I hope also, you know, one of the things that, like I said, we're gonna put your site and all that stuff down here, and you know, we've got a different kind of following. There's a lot of despair out there, and I don't have a lot of time. I'm not in the business of coaching people and helping them, and I wish I had time for that. Yeah, I'm in the business of trying to find a solution that would convert people that are HIV positive, people living with HIV, to a normal life where HIV is no longer a consideration, and even that can't spread fast enough, right? 

It's obvious gene and cell therapy is going to be expensive at first, but I would say to everybody that's listening to this, and you know, and you've taught this lesson as well, healthcare in the United States is not bad, it's likely to cover things like this. So, if you're in the United States and suffering from HIV, get on healthcare, get on your antiretrovirals, go ahead and start pulling all the great stuff into your life that you've always wanted, and don't let anything, your self-esteem or your diagnosis, get in your way. Yeah, right and listening to those positive messaging but also, you know, to have some hope that we will put this in the rear view mirror one day.

Raif Derrazi: I do get a lot from people is that they're fixated on when are we going to have a cure? Is this the cure? Is this it? Can I get the cure? And I tend to tell people that, honestly, my focus is not the cure because right now, I have medication that I can take a pill once a day. Outside of that, I don't really think about it. I'm undetectable. I have been in a three-year relationship with an HIV negative partner, and outside of that, I don't think about it. So, for all intents and purposes, it's a non-issue in my life.

When an HIV cure comes, that'll be great, but I'm not waiting for it, and now with the advent of injectable HIV medication, where you can go two months and then get an injection every two months, then like, it's really, really insignificant.

Jeff Galvin: Are you experiencing any side effects from the medication? Sometimes when you see the ads on TV, they suggest some common side effects, but do those really happen?

Raif Derrazi: I don’t have any noticeable side effects, I’ll put it that way.

Jeff Galvin: Perfect, and are the medications pretty good at this point in terms of minimizing those side effects?

Raif Derrazi: Yeah, they’re really good and our life expectancy is essentially the same as anyone else taking the medication. I do get people who are, I would say, more paranoid that everything that they're experiencing is related to their medication, but it's hard to give evidence that that's exactly what's happening. 

Like people will message me and say “Oh my god, I gained tons of weight, it’s the medication.” or “I lost a bunch of weight. It’s the medication” It’s like yeah, didn’t we all lose or gain a lot of weight over the pandemic? It’s hard to say what it’s from, but I tell people to act as if it’s not the medication and act as if it’s under your control. Make those adjustments and see if there is a positive change there. If not, maybe you can address it with your doctor, but if there is, then you’re not blaming it on a medication, again victim mindset, the whole time.

Jeff Galvin: Yeah, that’s a very good analysis of that. They’re actually attributing things there and then maybe just giving up on it, as opposed to doing some problem solving and recognizing that they could get through it.

Jeff Galvin: Are there any other things that you'd like to tell the audience about HIV, about stigma, about your journey?

Raif Derrazi: I think it's a topic that has become a little more contentious with U equals U, is the concept of disclosure and is a person obligated if they're going to have a sexual encounter with you to tell you their status?

And I personally do just because I am so open and transparent. And I also like to have the opportunity to possibly educate. But I know that the circumstances are very different for everybody and, in some cases, it can be dangerous to disclose your status to someone that you don't know intimately or trust intimately. Whether it's a hookup or whether you're dating, it's a very personal choice. 

And if you're at the point where you're undetectable, you're no longer transmittable, so, effectively, it no longer affects the other person's body, then what business is it really of theirs? It's not. And so, a lot of people feel like, "Well, it's my body, so I should have the right to know if someone else is HIV positive." But it's like, it's basically like if I have diabetes and I'm gonna sleep with somebody and they're like, "Well, I need to know that you have diabetes first." Yeah, it doesn't affect you. 

Jeff Galvin: I think that makes complete sense. And you know that may also just be, if they're dealing with that question, it may be just another impediment to having normal relationships with other folks if they can't resolve that in their head. But so what you're saying is it's a personal choice because there is, it is true, it's not affecting the other person. And look, life is risky. Having relationships has some element of risk in it. You know, you could be in a car with that person and they could get into an accident. I mean, lots of stuff happens, and we have to keep going on, right? 

Raif Derrazi: There's also the argument that as an HIV negative person, you need to take your sexuality into your own hands. And so there's condoms, which are highly effective, there's PrEP, which is highly effective, and a lot of the other counter-argument that I get is, "Well, if the person's not taking their medication properly, then maybe they're undetectable for a day or this week or whatever." 

Well, now that we're having injectable HIV medication that lasts for months at a time, that's going to be less and less of an issue. So, I think as time goes on, this disclosure controversy needs to fade.

Jeff Galvin: Yeah, I did not realize that that was a big point of contention in the community. Any other things that are stuff that you frequently get asked?

Raif Derrazi: No, not off the top of my head. I was shocked, though, in the last few years. I was seeing a barber in the valley in LA, and we had a pretty good rapport. I've seen him numerous times, and we were on a texting basis whenever I needed an appointment or whatever. And I was slowly like telling more and more about my life, and on the last visit, I told him, "Oh, you know, I do a bunch of HIV advocacy work. I’m HIV positive." And his reaction was like, "Wow, man, that's crazy. I don't think I would be able to handle something like that. That's so intense. But like mad respect for you for what you're doing and for how you've handled it." And you know, I didn't think anything of it outside of that. 

And the next time I tried to make an appointment to go see him, I didn't get any kind of response. And I tried for like a while, kept reaching out. And I called the shop, even spoke to somebody, and they're like, "Oh, yeah, he's in the store but he's got a client so I'll have him call you back." He didn't call me back, so it didn't take me too long to realize that I scared him off and he, because of stigma, was afraid of something there or maybe he just didn't want to be associated with me as a person. It could be. So I found a new barber and he's great. He's awesome. 

Jeff Galvin: Your hair looks great, by the way. 

Raif Derrazi: Yeah, thank you. I appreciate that. He posts to social media a lot, so he would post me on his Instagram, and at one point, one of his clients one day said, "Hey, you know, I saw you post this picture of your client who has HIV. Are you concerned at all, because cutting his hair and like what if you nick him? What if there's blood? And what if you cut somebody else's hair?" It's like, wow, that really doesn't work like that.

Jeff Galvin: I've heard that doctors and dentists can sometimes be scared off by this. Now you'd think healthcare professionals would understand the nuances of this and that they are in no danger and that they aren't going to be passing it around. But you know, it is a very overwhelming, scary subject, and people maintain their ignorance about it. If you don't have it, you probably, in some ways, it's kind of even a scary subject to talk about, you know, so you don't learn. Another reason to tune into your YouTube channel. 

You'll feel a lot safer out there. Yeah, I'm just speaking to people that don't have HIV. I think a lot of folks don't realize how hard it is to get HIV. There are certain behaviors that are going to increase your risk, but you have tremendous control over your life. And the person whose hair you're cutting, you know, and all your friends and all the people that you hang with casually, are literally, you don't need to know their status. It makes absolutely no difference to you. And even if they are well controlled like you, you still need to know their status, even if you're intimate with them. And that's just true. That's tremendously empowering in a way for folks that are just the stigma also is accompanied by probably a lot of limitations in their life and a lot of fears that are irrational or unreasonable that they could love.

Raif Derrazi: You touched on doctors not always having all the information as well, and it's very true, especially related to supplements. You know, there was this idea, especially back probably before I was diagnosed, where the medications were so hard on the body that doctors didn't want to add any kind of extra stressors to our kidney, our liver, and such, and so that supplements were off the table. But because the medications nowadays are so non-toxic, I'm able to take like whey protein every single day and tons of creatine and all these other supplements every day, and I get lab results and checkups every six months to check on all that stuff, and it's all really, really good. 

But doctors are still telling their patients no, no supplements, no nothing. And I find it's kind of lazy in a way to not really take it on a case-by-case basis and kind of work with the patient to follow up and to check on their vitals. Okay, let's try the protein and see how it works, you know? Yeah, so I think that's something that the medical community can work on as well.

Jeff Galvin: Yeah, I think that's really good input to the medical community. I think sometimes there's stuff also suffering from the fact that the amount of time that they have with patients just keeps getting drawn down further and further. You know, it used to be that your family doctor had more of a holistic interest in you, time to pursue that. But I wonder if the time even exists now.

Raif Derrazi: And HIV patients need that extra personal care. If your doctor says, "Nope, no supplements, that's it," then that's already just demoralizing. If you're trying to start up your fitness regimen, 

Jeff Galvin: So let's go back to your same advice, which is to go ahead and take control of that. You should be your own healthcare advocate. When you hear things like that, recognize, "Well, okay, that may not be 100% true." Read more on the internet, learn more from people that are doing this, and then go in there and go, "Hey, could we try this and would you be willing? Would you just measure?" And then if the answer is no, get a new doctor. There's a lot of doctors out there, a lot of barbers out there. One relationship is not the make or break of a great life.

I’m sorry I cut you off, what were you saying?

Raif Derrazi: No, you took the words right out of my mouth. That’s exactly what I tell them.  It's your life, it's your body. You have to be your own advocate and get a second opinion or say, "Hey, I know you said no supplements, but it's two weeks before I come in for my lab work. Why don't I try it for two weeks, get my blood work done, see if there's anything negative, and then next time try it for a month and go from there?" You know what I mean?

Jeff Galvin: Do you have special healthcare or are you kind of dealing with the same system as everybody else?

So, I was on special healthcare coverage where my premiums were totally covered. The cost of medication is covered. Everything was, it is really great for people who are under a certain income threshold in the U.S. Everybody in the U.S. who's under that income threshold can get it. It's fantastic. 

Once you are a dollar over that threshold, it's a cliff and you just go from everything covered to "Okay, you're on your own." Fortunately, I have employee-covered health insurance, so that's fine. I pay a premium like everybody else. It's totally normal, and I'm just thankful actually that I make enough that I don't qualify anymore.

Jeff Galvin: Yeah, I guess especially since you were able to get sufficient healthcare in your situation. I don't know whether there is some gap in there where people actually find that they can't get employer healthcare, and they can't afford premiums or whatever, right?

The times that I looked at the ACA and I helped people to look at the ACA, I found it to be a really good program that generally, you would go ahead and pick out your coverage, and then it would measure that against your income, and it would supplement it in some way so that it did become affordable. I didn't realize that you could go a dollar over and lose everything. I haven't seen that since I've looked at it.

Raif Derrazi: Not ACA. It’s specifically for HIV.

Jeff Galvin: Oh, yeah. I get it. Does the ACA have coverage in it for HIV, or is that excluded?

Raif Derrazi: Yeah.

Jeff Galvin: That's within it. Yeah, I think I was expecting to hear, again because of the amazing success that you've had and the way you've determined your own life and what you've made out of it. I was expecting you to say, "Oh, yeah, I come from a rich family," and you know, so I have like premium. That wasn't the case at all.

Raif Derrazi: It was quite the opposite.

Jeff Galvin: Yeah, that's another tremendously important thing for people to understand - you're a regular guy who did this. You know, you're not, you know, you don't come from extreme privilege. How did your family react to all this stuff when it was disclosed?

Raif Derrazi: It was fear, not thinking that the worst had come true, basically. So just to give you a little backstory, when I came to the US with my mom about at about five years old, we were actually fleeing my biological father, her husband at the time, who was in jail for physically beating her. She was convinced that at some point he might try to kill her and take me back to Morocco, and so she fled the country and came here as a refugee and didn't tell any of her brothers and sisters, her family, nobody where she went. So we were essentially in hiding here in Southern California. I was using a different name until I was 22 years old - Timmy Zimmer was the name that I went by.

And before she ever left, he had a suspicion that she would try to run away, and he said, "If you take away my son, he will grow up without a father, he will grow up to be gay, and he will get AIDS." And so, that was like, "Oh, he was right," you know, in her mind. So, I think that was something that she struggled with was that he would be proven right. 

Jeff Galvin: That he had predicted this dark situation was like the sum of fears…

Raif Derrazi: That she was responsible on some level.

Jeff Galvin: Wow, I mean, didn't she think you were going to end up that way anyway? I mean, you know, when you think about having a crappy father, which it sounds like, if you don't mind me saying, you know, beats up your mom and acts that way and isn't, you know, it probably had more influence on you, maybe not following, you know, automatically following the normal, not normal, it's not even normal, that model, right? Like, you know, it, he may have been setting a whole bunch of things in motion, even having to do with your self-esteem, even in terms of your, this victim mentality, all of that stuff, the fact that you had to masquerade as Timmy Zimmer in Southern California before you could become yourself again, and it's like, yeah, so what? So, he predicted the future, you know, and he was part of that trajectory that set you and your mom in that direction, and it's like, it doesn't matter that he predicted it, you know.

Raif Derrazi: But that's what perpetrators of violence and narcissists and sociopaths do - they gaslight you and think that what the consequences of what happens is their fault and not the person who is causing all this trauma.

Jeff Galvin: Thank you for summing it up that way. I got to tell you that I feel like I'm doing such an inadequate job of interviewing you, because there's just so many gems in here, I just don't even know which way to go. But again, it's such an important aspect of life, which is this idea that there are folks out there that are trying to convince you that a whole bunch of things, you know, that are befalling you are from you and your behavior when it's really from their behavior.

Raif Derrazi: 100%.

Jeff Galvin: Yeah, once again, a lesson that is for everyone. This is not for gay people, this is not for people that have HIV, this is for every human being on Earth to recognize some of these things that are just truisms.

And you know, I'm just inspired and I gotta say, I feel a little bit like I'm not worthy, you know, in a way. Yeah, it's been a tough interview on me. I just, you know, the level of accomplishment and the self-confidence that you exhibit to even be able to share even some tears with us about that person that you helped in Amsterdam, and your openness, your transparency, your approachability, your accessibility, I mean, wow. 

I'm gonna go to your YouTube channel, I'm gonna start watching some of these videos, because this is something that we've talked about here today that's about personal growth from any point to any point, from an up period in your life to further up, from a stumbling, like a pothole in the road, to getting back in charge of your life and doing great stuff with it. I'm really glad to have met you.

Jeff Galvin: If there's anything else, any other wisdom that you can lay on me or your audience, I would love to hear it.

Raif Derrazi: I will tell you the only reason why I can speak to these things is because I've been through it and I've been there and I've been at the bottom of the barrel, not just with my AIDS diagnosis, but with an attempted suicide in my teens, with deep, dark depression for years, being bullied growing up, having gone through the trauma with my mom. I've just been through so much it gave me the opportunity to really find a lot of empathy and compassion and understanding, because if I didn't, I would have imploded by now or I would be so dark and hateful and angry, and it would be the opposite for sure.

I'm excited. I just recently joined a CAB (Community Advisory Board), I think is what it stands for, so there's a program being initiated by the NIH where they want HIV scientists and researchers who are hands-on working on trying to get a cure to meet every quarter or however long and to discuss their findings and also discuss ways in which we can connect with artists and influencers such as myself to relay messages to the community and have this kind of crosstalk. I'm really excited that we're doing that.

Jeff Galvin: That was one of the purposes of us asking you to join us here today. That's exactly the kind of connection we want to make because I think that it won't be enough to just improve HIV. What we've seen is there are a lot of things that get in the way of people embracing those things and bringing them into their life and improving their lives with new technologies and discoveries and eventually the cure. Offline, if you don't mind, share that information on that Community Advisory Board, and if there's any way we could get involved, I think we've made some really interesting observations in our research that may be valuable to that group. I'd love to be involved.

Let me just thank you again for joining us today and just bringing yourself. I now recognize that who you are to other people has been uplifting to you as well. It's amazing how giving has so many benefits in return. I think you're another example of that, and maybe you don't realize immediately the incredible impression that you make when you talk so openly about your own trials, your own difficulties, your own journey to where you are today. I hope that everybody listening today will take a lesson from a lot of the things that you said and grab onto their life and realize fundamentally how important they are as a human being and that they deserve to have a great life like what you've made for yourself. I hope we'll have another conversation because we could not possibly cover it in one. Thank you so much for being with us here today. 

Raif Derrazi: Thank you, Jeff. It was a pleasure.

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