Raif Derrazi has been living with HIV for more than a decade now, and he has responded to his diagnosis in a remarkable way: by remaking not just his body but his emotional life. He hit the gym, hard. So hard, in fact, that he became a competitive bodybuilder. And he worked daily on developing a positive attitude about his diagnosis and living each day to the fullest.
The results of Raif’s transformation have made him, in the words of writer Mark King, “an Instagay hottie with a purpose.” The purpose is to use his platform to educate people about HIV treatment and prevention, physical fitness, mental health, and what it means to be undetectable (U=U).
We chatted with Raif during Pride month about sexual health, HIV testing, and hitting the gym after the pandemic. Raif generously allowed photographer Ron Katagiri to follow him around for an afternoon as he worked–and worked out–at his home in downtown Los Angeles that he shares with his boyfriend and puppy.
Hi Raif! What are you up to these days?
I’m busier than I have been in my life. I joke that if 2019 Raif was in 2022 Raif’s shoes, he’d have a nervous breakdown from all the stress. So it’s a testament to how much I’ve grown and how much more I’m capable of dealing with today. Things are really picking up now that COVID restrictions are easing and I’m so excited about all the opportunities. I host a fitness segment for Plus Life on Localish’s digital cable channel, I am an official trainer for Vitruvian’s fitness app, and I am on the board of an NIH-funded organization that aims to link members of the community with leading researchers/scientists in the field of HIV cure. I’m so stoked to take everything I’m learning and share it with my audience online. I also co-created a non-profit with Miss Peppermint and Bob The Drag Queen called Black Queer Town Hall. It serves to uplift and celebrates black queer voices, artists, performers, and thought leaders and also make sure they are paid, Henny.
We love Black Queer Town Hall! How are things with you at home during the COVID pandemic?
Between Beau and Duke (boyfriend and dog, respectively) I couldn’t be happier. It’s a nice change of pace from having felt so lonely and heartbroken and misunderstood for most of my life. I’m really thankful to have that as a foundation and source of stability in my life; I don’t take that for granted one bit.
What are your plans for the Pride season?
I’ve been so engulfed in my HIV advocacy work I honestly forgot to prepare for Pride. If I didn’t already have my gay card taken away so many times I would begrudgingly hand it over.
You can keep your card for sure. What’s on your bedside table? Prying eyes want to know.
Haha, nothing terribly exciting. My silver rings and silver necklace that I take off every night. My iPhone and charger, a coaster, and hopefully a full glass of water if I haven’t swiped it off the table while reaching for my phone.
Where do you like to hang out when you are not working?
I’m a serious introvert at heart. Some people are surprised by that as I can turn on the social charm in small bursts but then I have to hide away and recharge. I love hanging out at home with Beau and Duke by the pool or at the gym.
How did you take charge of your emotional physical and sexual health after testing HIV positive?
I worked hard on reclaiming my body after my AIDS diagnosis; I’m now a pro-competitive natural physique bodybuilder. I take my meds daily of course. I focus on being kinder to myself. I’m incredibly hard on myself and put a lot of pressure on myself to accomplish a lot; I’m working on just loving myself and being okay with ‘failure’ and letting my inner voice be a source of encouragement instead of criticism. Embracing my sexuality has been a struggle. I used to hook up quite a bit when I was single but I have hang-ups about my attractiveness and my body when in a relationship because I have to be so much more vulnerable. Sex and emotions are very interlinked for me so if I’m not doing well mentally/emotionally then it manifests in poor sexual health. It’s a process and Beau is very patient with me.
We have all enjoyed your pics from previous Prides LOL. What will you do this year to top that?
Unfortunately, I have no intention of being able to ‘top’ previous years of Raif showing up and showing out. I gained over 35 pounds during the pandemic and I am still working to lose that weight. I have never weighed this much in my life and it has been the source of a lot of distress I must admit.
People love you, big or small. Since your diagnosis with HIV, you have made a point of reclaiming your body through exercise and becoming an articulate HIV advocate. How did you find the emotional strength to do this? Any tips you can share?
Honestly, I’ve always been pretty outspoken about things I’m passionate about. I’m a generally nice, kind, soft-spoken person, but when I’m fired up about something I find my voice and my presence to stand up for what I believe in. It’s an innate quality I’ve had since I was young. I’ve also always been very open and heart-on-my-sleeve so sharing my journey with HIV was a natural extension of me just being who I am. My main advice is to just be true to yourself. There is no right way to deal with a diagnosis and you should never feel obligated to be or do anything that isn’t right for you. My natural traits lent themselves to doing what I do today; find what makes you unique and special and double down on that. Everyone has their own special niche and place in life and you just can’t compare. No one’s better than anyone else. Love who you are and others will too.
Testing positive is difficult but can you share a message or word of encouragement for that young gay man who is afraid to get an HIV test? Someone who may think hearing the word positive may be too much to deal with?
We often focus on the fear of a diagnosis and ignore the constant state of dread and anxiety we live within not knowing. That too does a ton of damage to our psyche and sense of self-worth. It’s like having small drops of water plunk down on your forehead for minutes, hours, days, and months on end. It seems small but eventually, it will drive you insane. Also, if you get tested and find out you don’t have HIV, well, you’ve just saved yourself so much unnecessary grief. If you get tested and you are positive, well guess what, you were positive whether you tested or not. The benefit now is that you can treat it, becoming undetectable and being unable to transmit the virus. You can get to a place where HIV no longer has any negative physical repercussions. Knowing is always better than not knowing. Ignorance isn’t bliss; it’s a world of stress and anxiety that could manifest itself in some serious real-life disease.
You have said that you are being fully yourself. Can you talk about why that’s important all of the time but particularly important and freeing during Pride season?
I certainly try to be fully myself; I fail a lot. But it’s the intention and focus that matters most. It’s especially important during Pride season because the rest of the year it’s so easy for us all to get caught up in the day-to-day of life. This is a time when we can all, collectively set an intention to focus on our community, our health and well-being, and our vibrant presence in this world as a source of comfort within the community, and as a source of visibility and education to those surrounding us.
This year’s pride will feel different, we are slowly emerging from the COVID pandemic and we are hearing more and more that it might be possible to finally end the HIV epidemic in terms of new transmission–and also an eventual cure. How does it feel this year for you?
It certainly feels like there’s an electric something conjured in the air, and that the epidemic may be in its final stages as we are getting to zero new infections. There’s a lot of great work being done. But as I tell a lot of people who are so hung up on when the cure will arrive, I don’t focus on it. I’m not waiting for it. I’m undetectable and I take a daily pill that grants me full health with no side effects. As far as I’m concerned, I’m cured. When the day comes that I no longer am dependent on the medicine, amazing, but in the meantime, the rest of my life is waiting.
It seems like we have a lot to celebrate – how are you feeling and what do you plan to do to make this year very special?
I am committed to working harder than I have ever worked, more consistently and unapologetically. There is so much inside of me that I want to express and activate to make good use of my limited time on Earth. I’m keenly aware of how short life is and I want to leave this place better than I found it. I firmly believe that you can be good and honest and kind and be extremely successful. Good people are out there and we need to stick together. I’m looking forward to expanding this network of amazing humans so we can all uplift each other and celebrate our successes.
Are there days that seem to be too much for you? Days that your Pride is a little dimmer than normal?
Are you kidding? My light and energy bounce around like the stock market. As recently as mid-year 2021 I had suicidal ideation for the first time in years. Depression/anxiety is something I’ve struggled with most of my life; that tendency is always sort of there watching from the wings. I’ve learned to live with it though, comfort myself, go easy on myself, lessen the lows, and support the highs. I take the suicidal ideation as a clear indicator that something needs to change rather than an ominous signal that I’m about to literally go off the deep end. It’s a part of who I am and I’m learning to allow it to guide me rather than cripple me.
As Peter Staley writes in his new book, Never Silent: ACT UP and My Life in Activism, we were standing on the shoulders of thousands of brave warriors who came before us. As gay men we are standing at what will become the end of HIV, many gave their blood, sweat, tears, and lives so that we could have that honor. How will you pay it forward? What can or will you do today that will benefit a gay man 30 years from now?
I think the most impactful way any of us can pay it forward is just to live out our individual lives in the most fulfilling, purposeful, grateful way possible. If we can honor the gift of life by living it well, it will naturally have a profound, positive impact on those around us. Each of us has a unique lived experience, and by embracing and dealing with that experience we impart wisdom and love to those around us. As a gay man living with HIV, dealing with and healing from the trauma of stigma, homophobia, and emotional abuse, I can learn to be grateful for my community and my health. In my process to heal and grow, I become an example for others. It’s what I do on social media and in person. But everyone has a different lived experience, so everyone has the potential for a slightly unique pearl of wisdom to impart to others.
Tell me more about letting go of fear and judgment and allowing freedom to take its place.
Fear is a big one for me. I’ve struggled with anxiety my whole life. I have been a victim of it for far too long. Being able to identify anxiety has been a huge win thus far. It often masks itself as boredom, procrastination, and escapism. When you have lived with chronic anxiety for so long, it’s very subtle and insidious. But being able to identify at the moment that I am experiencing fear is a great starting point from which I can then comfort myself. It’s okay to feel fear. Sometimes fear fills the places that are empty of anything else.
When we fill the empty places with love, particularly self-love, there’s not much for fear anymore and it tends to dissipate.