Personal trainer and author Nelson Vergel is the founder of The Body Positive Wellness Clinic in Houston, and the creator of "wellness restoration" programs for his clients. His body is composed of the rippling lean muscle you would expect of a personal trainer, but the sharpness of his mind and the scientific clarity of his words set him apart from the tiresome crowd of gym-built muscle-heads who want to sell you on their smoothie recipes.
Recently in town to deliver a lecture at the Pride Center in Fort Lauderdale about his new book Testosterone: A Man's Guide, he described a personal life powered by urgent desperation.
"I tell people that sometimes you have to come out of two closets at once, because that is what I did. I grew up in Maracaibo, an oil town and the second largest city in Venezuela. I had a girlfriend. I wasn't out. I had a degree in chemical engineering from McGill University in Montreal, and I had come home to work in the oil fields. My town was typical of the repressive religious macho culture of Venezuela. I had to get out of there, so I came to the USA. My first lover died of AIDS, and I tested HIV+ in 1985. A year later, I went public about being positive because I felt I had to do something. I became an activist without even knowing the word or what it meant, and my family found out I was gay and positive at the same time. A big gusher in the oil fields!"
When Nelson Vergel tells his story, his words spill out with urgency, and they seem to push each other forward with the impatience of a crowd leaving a burning building. His overarching sense of running out of time is kept in check by his training as an engineer and by his strong survival instincts. Even when he tells you that he has abandoned some of what he wrote in his earlier book Built to Survive: A Comprehensive Guide To The Medical Use Of Anabolic Hormones, his straight-forward and scientific approach to sexual vitality and health restoration makes his new book trustworthy and practical.
"I wrote the first book out of personal necessity. In those early days of AIDS, death came rapidly after infection. The fact that my employer, Shell Oil, transferred me to Los Angeles saved my life because I met men who were in the same boat. In 1993 we were all at the lowest point of hopelessness. We were told that AZT was not helping us. We all said 'Oh shit, we are all going to die.' We were trying every possible medication. We were buying stuff from all over the world. Some went to Mexico in search of illegal miracles. We were doing crazy things like having enema parties using Chinese cucumber. AIDS activists were pushing for law changes to allow imported substances for personal medical use. We felt we had nothing to lose. Ours was a culture of experimentation by despair.
"I was wasting away to nothing so I started using steroids and testosterone. I put on 40 pounds. I said, 'Fuck this. I'm going to bring this treatment out of the closet.' That is how the first book came to be and why I became a leading HIV hormone activist. It was a taboo subject back then. I think that treatment kept me alive until in 1996 we got the protease inhibitors. If you had managed to stay alive till '96, you kind of made it. I had learned so much about hormones that went into my book. Then someone asked me 'Nelson, do I need to be HIV+ to get benefits from testosterone?' I knew we needed a book about this to guide all men: gay, straight, positive or negative."
Vergel's new book is about reversing the bad effects of low testosterone on sexual function. Those effects include fatigue, lack of motivation and lack of drive. On Wednesday, March 23rd, when he lectured on this subject to a packed auditorium, he demonstrated a deep knowledge of his audience.
"I spoke about how to preserve erectile function while aging. I reviewed all 14 options from the blue pills to penile injections. I got questions like 'My balls have shrunk. My nipples are growing. What should I do?' Most people want to know how to manage side effects of medications. Fort Lauderdale has the largest new infection rate in the over-50 age bracket. In the next 5 to 10 years, Fort Lauderdale will have the largest HIV+ population in the world. People who came here to die are still alive and on disability. I was 100% sure I would die, but I'm a science guy. I thought the more information I had the better my chances would be. I use information as a weapon or a shield. I became part of the earliest group trained by the Centers For Disease Control as counselors. I love lecturing, but I thought that by now, I'd have moved on with my life. I thought this would be over by now. Instead, there are 33 million people living with HIV. Only 5 million of that number get treatment, and of that number, 12 million have T cell counts that have dropped to the point that they require medication to stay alive. We who are in that 5 million are like the Beverly Hills of HIV. It's shocking to me that after 30 years, that is where we are and I believe that history will recall this as a holocaust. I have a passion for justice, so I keep doing what I do."
Someone once told him "Nelson, you were always the kid who did everyone else's homework for them." He is still doing our homework for us.
(A version of this report appeared recently in South Florida Gay News.)