Living with HIV, Being Gay, and Saying It Openly at Work: What’s the Cost?

Carlos Escobar felt that a snowball was growing and was about to crush him. “Here are the leaves, there it says my condition,” he said cornered. The commercial manager of Grupo Estrella Roja (GER) snatched the documents from him and read what that company had sought to verify for almost two years through harassment, bullying and discrimination: HIV.

It was May 2019 and he was about to be fired. But he remained another two years in that transportation company based in Puebla. Finally, in February of this year, he was fired for having received a low evaluation.

In those four years he was pressured to have a hiv test; suffered non-consensual touching of the genital area by his colleagues, spanking, ridicule from superiors for his sexual orientation and skin tone, isolation, work overload, accusation of fraud and, in the end, theft of intimate photographs and dissemination unauthorized, as reported to The Economist.

His case was investigated in the Specialized Unit for Crimes Committed against the LGBTTQI+ population of the Puebla Prosecutor’s Office, but they shelved it. Due to the fact that a judge ordered Sergio Ortiz, an agent of the Public Ministry, to reopen the file, it will be reinvestigated.

In addition to naming him a “faggot,” Ortíz dismissed a test: an agreement that the legal representative of GER, Daniel Toxqui, the then head of the call centerElizabeth Castillo Olmedo, and the former Commercial Manager, Eduardo Castillo Cisneros, signed with the National Council to Prevent Discrimination (Conapred), where admit having committed discrimination.

“It is what Carlos says, but we have no proof and this war of accusations begins in which the company is involved,” says José Ramón Celma, director of Passenger Transport at GER. This situation occurred “in the work environmentbut he denounces co-workers”, not the organization, he maintains in an interview.

HIV/AIDS testing reform

Articles 1 of the Constitution and 2 of the Federal Labor Law (LFT) prohibit discrimination based on health condition, gender or sexual preferences, among other reasons. But the Senate seeks to include the impediment of HIV/AIDS tests to condition entry, permanence or promotion in a job.

In commissions, an opinion has already been approved to reform the LFT, the Law to Prevent and Eliminate Discrimination, the National Law of Criminal Enforcement, the General Law of Education and the General Law of Health in this sense. The idea is to protect the people living with HIV and AIDS at work, in migration and deprived of their liberty, and promote education in this regard. If approved, it would be prohibited to fire a person for living with that health condition or pressure them to resign.

Between 2012 to March 2022, the Conapred received 317 complaints of people living with HIV, 41% due to discrimination in the workplace, according to that body.

“The reform is extremely prudent because universal laws do not necessarily protect us from particularities. We need specific guarantees because our right to work is specifically violated because we have HIV,” says Carlos Ahedo, coordinator of the Salud Positiva program of the organization Yaaj México.

“I was not ready”

By the end of 2021, nearly 15,800 people had been notified of his HIV status, according to the Ministry of Health (SSa). Carlos Escobar found out in 2010, “it was the worst day of my life,” he says. It is almost the end of the interview, for more than two hours he had held back tears, but he couldn’t take it anymore.

He contained it even when he remembered that, around Christmas, Elizabeth Castillo, his former boss, gave him a cup with the nickname he hated. “Canela will be your battle name, because you are dark,” his colleagues told him one day, referring to how he would be known in the world of sex work.

Elizabeth Castillo “involved them in her teasing against me“, He says. “What bathroom are you going to, Carlitos, the men’s or the women’s?” He questioned him in front of everyone. “Are you standing or sitting?” a colleague was encouraged to ask one day.

years before when knew his diagnosis, his first thought was to be dirty. Taking his own life was the second. He was 21 years old and was attending university, but the fear that someone would find out locked him up in his room for months and he stopped studying. At the age of 28, he started working for that company and went back to college.

“At Estrella Roja they forced me to say that I live with HIV and I wasn’t prepared,” he says.

Right to anonymity

HIV is the infection of a virus that affects the immune system, explains Carlos Ahedo, nurse and activist. Only if left untreated does it advance to the phase called AIDS.

The medicine brings the viral load to zero, “it is called be undetectable. It is impossible for a person with HIV, under antiretroviral treatment, to transmit the virus”, emphasizes the member of Yaaj México, an organization for the rights of the LGBTTQI+ population.

“I started working in June 2017 at the call center”, says Carlos Escobar. In November of that year he had a severe stomach upset and went to his clinic at the Mexican Social Security Institute (IMSS). That delayed him, so to avoid having his day discounted, he requested a medical note as proof.

“I asked the doctor not to write down my serological status and she said yes.” In her haste, she didn’t check it. The next day, in front of a colleague as a supposed witness, they told him that, by order of Eduardo Castillo Cisneros, GER’s Commercial Manager, he had to provide your medical historybecause he had HIV. Carlos got scared, said it had been a mistake and that he would clear up the misunderstanding. But they asked him to take a test, he says.

“The people with HIV we exist and coexist, we can be your doctor, your driver, your tattoo artist, who cuts the meat”, says Carlos Ahedo, from Yaaj. “We must have the right to state that we live with HIV without the risk of being run over, but also to anonymity”.

Between harassment and two dismissals

With the help of Conapred, Carlos forced the IMSS to correct the note, since the institute had refused. He took the new document to his work, but they didn’t believe him, he says. Elizabeth Castillo, his boss, tried to find out more: “He was nice, then he asked about my sexual preferenceI told him that this was outside work and then it all started.

The harassment was gradual, he says, criticizing his dress, his way of speaking. She changed places in the office and isolated him in a corner. He asked the staff not to kiss each other and not to share glasses or bottles, says Carlos. And he asked him to use a napkin to touch the water server. “It was like in covid, but without covid and only because of me.”

Later he increased his functions. “One day he put me with a homophobic partner to train me, but they didn’t give me the complete information and they scolded me. I had to tell a supervisor and it caught his attention, he got upset and told me in front of everyone: ‘You’re a damn siding and you’re going to die alone’. Elizabeth laughed.”

He changed his hours from one day to the next, brought him home. A couple of colleagues recommended him to use the transparency channel, where the company receives work environment complaints or misuse of resources. They also filed a complaint. They did it by phone and, although it could be anonymous, they gave their names, he says. “We talked about the nicknames, the schedule changes, the work overload and the harassment,” he says.

“For us that record did not exist”, says José Ramón Celma, executive of Grupo Estrella Roja. The complaints are received by an external auditing company, “with all confidentiality” and they pass the case to each area.

According to Carlos, after that Eduardo Castillo met with each of the complainants. “He told me that if they entrusted me with so much work it is because they trusted me and I believed it”. But Elizabeth Castillo intensified her treatment of him, he says.

“We are very surprised that it has only taken the case in judicial terms and not with his bosses (…) he has approached only the authorities and the media, never with Elizabeth”, says José Ramón Celma. He may have told other people in the company, he adds.

What area could you have approached that had the knowledge to deal with these cases, a protocol to do so and an authority conferred by the company to investigate them?

—We didn’t have it at that time, but it was able to climb up the hierarchy. The mechanisms were there, like the complaint process— Celma responds.

In May 2019 Carlos was accused of asking for the return of the payment of a couple of Red Star bus tickets. He assures that the evidence was unfounded, Celma maintains that it was. In any case, they served Eduardo Castillo to force him to inform him of his condition and, later, fire him.

Carlos again sought out Conapred and the Puebla Labor Defense Attorney’s Office and managed to get his job back. In June of that year he was offered a vacancy in the mechanical workshop and he accepted, but the bullying got worse.

His colleagues from the workshop obtained intimate photographs and videos with his partner and spread them, he says. They took him off guard and spanked him or touched his genitals through his pants. In the end, the company He fired him for having come out very low in the evaluation of goals.

The other parallel fights

In Puebla, says Carlos Escobar, at the Ambulatory Center for the Prevention and Care of AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections (CAPASITS), the option for those who do not have social Securityantiretrivirals are usually lacking.

“Could not stay without IMSS, my goal is to become undetectable and if I lost my job it would be a setback, so I stuck it out. And because it is not easy for me to be hired elsewhere”.

The company did not take “specific” actions with Elizabeth Castillo and Eduardo Castillo. “We have invited managers to take the Conapred course, 80% have already taken it”, says José Ramón Celma. But not Eduardo Castillo.

“This is the first case that has come to us, but I don’t think Carlos is the only one with HIV in the organization, surely there are many people and there is no issue with them. It is what has generated that doubt in us, why has Carlos had this recurrence within the organization in two different places? ”, He adds.

Do they have a protocol to prevent discrimination and attend to cases of violence, as ordered by the LFT?

“No, to be honest we don’t. We are starting it, this has brought us that reality.

And when the complaints reach the audit area “there is no specific protocol for each one of the situations, as they are presented, we are working on them”, he acknowledges.

“Personally, I think we have to continue learning. From the company, covid-19 taught us that we must continue to evolve. We take this topic to all levels of the organization, starting with the directive. It is a reality that we have to enter into and it is very likely that we will formalize a committee”.

As a child, Carlos Escobar wanted to fight pollution. “Everyone already knows that I live with HIV, I did not want to, but my story can serve so that it does not repeat itself”. His fight now is another.

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