In the community, our ever-growing acronym LGBTQAIA-plus can be impressive and so are the letters that follow the name of this week’s Portrait: Noel B. Ramirez, MPH, MSW, LCSW, BCD.
PGN: Tell me a little about yourself.
NR: I was born and raised in Jersey City, New Jersey to two Filipino immigrant parents. I have an older sister and grew up with a gay uncle who lived with us in the house. He was like a third parent. I didn’t know why he was staying with us, but I later learned he was living with HIV/AIDS and had been pretty much shunned by the rest of the family. So without even knowing it, I had a very queer life growing up, issues that were important to the queer community were taking place right in my house. He died when I was about 10, back in ’93 or ’94.
PGN: AIDS was very stigmatized and misunderstood back then.
NR: Yeah, we don’t talk a lot about HIV and AIDS in the Asian Pacific Islander (API) communities, even still. So the past 10 years, I have been working professionally in the HIV/AIDS community, and I’m sure it stems from that experience. I remember visiting the mothers of my uncle’s friends who were also dying of AIDS. Just listening to the conversations that the grownups were having; they were talking in Tagalog but still not saying the words that they wanted to say. It was interesting exposure to how language can be taboo. One of the things that I love as a social worker is helping people finally put words to things without shame.
PGN: It sounds like your parents were pretty progressive.
NR: Well, my parents are not perfect people, but they are super curious and resilient and through it all they tried to stick to their beliefs that family comes first no matter what, and that followed through later to me as well.
PGN: Does religion play a big role in the Filipino community?
NR: It does, but surprisingly, my parents are kind of Agnosticky. My mom’s a Catholic poser. There was a lot of peer pressure for her to be involved, but I remember her being pretty laid back about it, and my dad was like, whatever about religion. In terms of resistance toward my queerness: much of it was because of the trauma they’d been through with my uncle. There was very little support in the Filipino community, or in general at that point, and they were scared for me.
PGN: That’s understandable.
NR: But mainly they were concerned about school, I grew up in a working-class environment, my Dad’s a postal worker, my mom did clerical work, and my dad always said, “You don’t have to be a doctor or an engineer, I just want you to graduate college, to be happy and safe and to do something that will get you out of this place.” There was a lot of hardship growing up in that neighborhood but what a blessing to have them; they didn’t micromanage my identity, and in the API community, it’s not unusual for the families to be on top of their kids 24/7, pressuring them to excel at academics.
PGN: What’s your sister like?
NR: We were allies as we both struggled to find our place in the United States as the children of immigrants. She’s two years older than me and has been supportive from the beginning. She’s a teacher now.
PGN: So you both went into service industries.
NR: Yeah, we grew up in a family that was always providing help for people. A lot of new immigrant families lived in our home until they could get on their feet. Our home was a hub to welcome everyone. I was moved, even as a young child, by that commitment to service.
PGN: That was my grandparent’s house. People would come from all over knowing they would be fed if they found the Nash house.
NR: That’s so wonderful. I think it’s a great privilege to be in a family that has that type of service commitment. I’m honored to have been raised by people who cared so much for others.
PGN: What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
NR: My dad was an electrical engineering student, but he dropped out to come to America, so I thought maybe that’s what I’d do even though I had no idea what it meant. I went to a business and finance magnet school, but I totally wasn’t into it. My first job ever was as a municipal bond coder for Merrill Lynch. I was 16, and I had no idea what I was doing. But then I got involved with a group called Sumisibol, which was a Filipino youth group. Sumisibol means to sprout, and it exposed me to a lot of cool older people who taught us about the arts and other things. One of them was a social worker and it really intrigued me, so I went to college and got a women’s and gender studies degree and then a communications degree and then to graduate school to become a social worker and got my master’s in public health, and now I’m working on this other doctorate.
PGN: So when your dad said, “No pressure, just try to graduate college and get out” you took it to another level.
NR: I know, but I love to learn. Every time I’ve entered a graduate program, it’s become a studio for me to learn and explore the type of work I do even further. I just love what I do. I think it’s the greatest honor to get to listen to people’s stories — to get to bear witness and listen to their lives. It’s the basics of what I do, being part of someone’s narrative and being able to help write it if allowed.
PGN: So give me the short version of what you do?
NR: [Laughing] Well, I have a couple of side hustles because I believe in diversified funding. For my full-time gig, I’m a behavioral health consultant at a local health center. I’m also a project director for Public Health Management Corporation, a lot of stuff in those veins. I also teach at West Chester University and Columbia, and I have a small private practice. I feel so lucky. I’m 34, and I love what I do; I’ve never chased a coin. I’ve always been able to pursue my passion. I have so many friends that hate what they’re doing so this is really a blessing.
PGN: How did you get involved in Philadelphia Asian and Queer (PAQ)?
NR: I moved here from New York City where I worked as a dancer in a gay Asian nightclub. I was 19 at the time and for a young, queer, Asian boy, it was such a profound experience. We live in a world that is centered on white supremacy and the images of what were we’re shown and told were beautiful were often white bodies. So it was the first time in my life where I felt that my beauty was centered. I say that with the knowledge I have now, that there were multiple things that were problematic at the club: body dysmorphia and image issues, a lot of substance abuse there. There were a lot of colonial reenactments of erotica, no shade to rice queens, but it could be problematic. But having said that, my manager was Filipino. Having lost my uncle who should have been my guiding gay role model, I felt like the manager played that role for me. There were a lot of amazing Asian guys who were all beautiful in their own way, and I really came to embrace my sexual subjectivity. My image of Asian masculinity before that was very neutered, very asexual, but there I got to experience various forms of masculinity. It was a beautiful, somewhat problematic but also transformational experience. So, fast forward, I moved to Philadelphia to go to Penn and expected to find a visible API community here and there really wasn’t one.
PGN: That’s surprising.
NR: Yeah, the racial tension in Philly is real, and it felt like there was a Black and a white community, which I acknowledge, honor and respect, but it seemed there was nothing much in the middle. It was a real let down until I ran into someone who was organizing a group called QPA. I started hanging out with them and met some beautiful people. Eventually that waned and I got involved in doing direct service with AIDS Services In Asian Communities (ASIAC), which really opened my eyes to the various types of Asian communities in and around Philadelphia — Vietnamese, Cambodian, Chinese, Filipino, etc. — and how HIV looks to them. It was a sad day when they closed. So I’d been involved with different API groups and met Matthew Wong two years ago. He was doing an Asian town hall event at the William Way Center, and it was actually my partner, who is not Asian, who told me about it. I checked it out and there were a lot of people there. I was immediately down for the cause and have been working with Matty and PAQ ever since.
PGN: Tell me about some of the things PAQ does.
NR: We do a monthly brunch at an API-owned restaurant. The next one is September 29 at Sarvida on Girard Ave. [Laughing] The one thing that really unites Asians is food, so we’ll also be doing a potluck in October and a Friendsgiving in November. There’s also a monthly support group and, on occasion, we’ll do a group outing. We’re in talks with a club to do a new version of the Jaded Lounge, and we work closely with other groups like the Asian Mosaic Fund and Fortune, which is a queer API magazine, and we’re looking for more collaborations. On September 22, we’re going to be doing another town hall meeting. We want to explore what types of advocacy and services people need and want in the API community. We’re working with a national organization on family acceptance to create literature and programs for parents and families of queer children. We have health and healing programs, all sorts of things, and we want to get more folks involved!
PGN: That’s great.
NR: Yes, and we’re doing a whole series of town hall meetings. The next one is going to be about how we can serve the trans and nonbinary API community. We want to make sure the organization is really inclusive and not just cis men calling the shots. I mean I love cis men and all, but I love community a lot more. We’re proud and happy that there seems to be a pretty diverse group of people already involved in our programs, and we want to build on that.
PGN: Nice. OK, random question time. Last time you went bowling?
NR: I love bowling! I used to be on the bowling team in high school, but the last time I went was with my colleagues at the clinic. I’m not as good anymore, but I still have decent form.
PGN: Any other sports?
NR: I’m kind of getting into running. I signed up for a half marathon as inspiration to get going. In high school, I was also on the crew team. It was ridiculous, I only joined because the boys were really cute. But it was fun to feel like an athlete for a minute, and I have a good lower body, so I did okay. It’s a good sport to hide in because you work as a team and no one can tell who’s doing the most; there’s no star in crew. I liked the anonymity of it.
NR: I’m trying my hand at cooking, and my partner and I love movies, so every Friday we go see a new film. And I like hosting gatherings at my house; it makes me think of family to have people over.
PGN: I still can’t believe that…
NR: Once upon a time I got paid to dance in a cage and would party until 6 in the morning when I can barely stay up until 10 at night these days.
PGN: What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?
NR: Falling in love. You’re vulnerable and powerless in ways that are the human condition. That or doing renovation on the house! We’re in the middle of it right now, and it’s terrifying.
PGN: A scent that makes you reminisce?
NR: Though I find the company problematic, Abercrombie & Fitch has a cologne called “Fierce.” In college, all the cute boys would wear it so it brings me back to those days. In high school, it was Liz Claiborne’s Curve for Men, which you could buy at Rite Aid. The fragrance reminds me of corner boys and teen angst!
PGN: What movie makes you cry?
NR: “Moana.” Oh my gosh, I had a class yesterday and showed it to talk about the use of self, and the scene when she’s demoralized and the grandmother comes to her and says, “Remember who you are...” — it always gets me emotional!
PGN: When did you come out?
NR: I knew I was into boys when I was very young. I think my first crush was Mr. Rogers! I was about 12 when I was able to formulate the idea “I am gay,” and then about 13 when I started coming out to friends. America Online (AOL) got me through it all, and my mom told me I was gay when I was 15. I think she got tired of me sneaking boys into my room to “study.” She cornered me in the house and said, “I know you’re a gay!” and I was banned from bringing boys home. Let me not play myself, it wasn’t that many guys, but enough. Both parents were very intuitive about my sexuality. I mean it was pretty hard not to figure out. But it wasn’t until college that I had an adult, very American conversation with my father about it. In Filipino culture, we just tend to accept but ignore it, so our Americanized conversation went, “You do know I’m gay don’t you?” He said, “Yeah, whatever, it doesn’t matter to me.” And that was that.
PGN: Go pop!
For more information about PAQ, visit https://phillyasianqueer.com.