Jai Rodriguez pushes fellow Latinx men to reject stigma and stand up for their health
by Larry Buhl
Marquee Photo by D’Andre Michael Photography
When Jai Rodriguez was sixteen his aunt disclosed that she was losing her vision, due to AIDS-related complications. Her son, Jai’s cousin, Rico, had HIV too. It was just months before antiretrovirals came out, months before HIV/AIDS would, for many, become a manageable disease instead of a death sentence.
Rodriguez told me it was his first encounter with HIV and because it was family, the impact was deep and personal. “My aunt is the reason I’m in entertainment. She went with me on my first audition.”
And though he was living a sheltered life, he was shocked at how people with HIV were treated. “When my mom and I took my aunt to the dentist, I watched her eyes well up when the dentist used three pairs of gloves with her. It was so unnecessary.”
Two years later, Rodriguez, just out of high school, booked a role in the hottest Broadway show at the time, Rent, and naturally, he would be playing the role of Angel, a young street performer who eventually dies from AIDS-related complications.
Or maybe the casting was not so obvious, aside from Angel and Rodriguez being of Puerto Rican descent. Though Rodriguez was a musical theater kid with two years in high school arts conservatory under his belt, the part of a gay genderqueer character was daunting.
“I didn’t have any life experience to draw from,” he said. “I grew up on Long Island in a strict, religious family. No TV, no secular music, nothing in the house unless it was for the glory of God. When you go from that to a show about freedom and sexual acceptance and HIV it’s quite a change. The minute I started playing [Angel], every drag queen came out and took me under their wing and shared their stories.”
Rodriguez was a quick study on the drag part, and, soon he was a de facto spokesman for HIV/AIDS, even though he was, and remains, negative. The cast of Rent would collect money for Broadway Cares after the show and because the Angel character passed away Rodriguez was usually the actor to make the speech that people need medical care and they don’t have access to it.
“Audience members, random strangers would disclose their HIV status to me and tell me how important the show’s message was.”
Since Rent, Rodriguez has starred in Bravo’s Queer Eye, where he instructed straight men on how to be cool and hip (but still straight). He’s also been in non-gay roles in the CBS techno-thriller series Wisdom of the Crowd and upcoming crime thriller film Intensive Care. In fact, the only gay role he’s had since Queer Eye is his current role in Sex Tips for Straight Women From a Gay Man, a comedy where he performs with Kendra Wilkinson off-Broadway and in Las Vegas.
“When I got Queer Eye, everywhere I want people would instantly know that I was gay because we were so visible. Thank god for progressive-minded casting directors, though. Now, I can’t get cast as the sassy gay friend to save my life.”
Health Tips for Latinx Men From a Latinx Man
Off-screen Rodriguez has broadened his definition of family to embrace the Latinx population, especially fellow Latinx gay, bi, or straight-identifying men who have sex with men. And he has some messages for them.
“First, if you are HIV positive, get into treatment. Owning your status is scary and paralyzing, but you have to get on a proper treatment plan and adhere to it. If you are negative, don’t say disparaging things about people with HIV. It angers me. I take that personally. It’s like you’re talking about my aunt.”
The reason Rodriguez began talking directly to the Latinx community is the statistics. Unlike other groups in the U.S., which are seeing a decrease in new HIV diagnoses, the Latinx community is actually seeing an increase, according to a CDC report released this year. And Latinx men are twice as likely to report missing a dose of their medication in the last forty-eight hours. If the current rates continue, one in four gay and bisexual Latinx men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime, the CDC estimates. For gay and bi white men, the rate is one in 11.
In an article still being prepped for publication in A&U, Guillermo Chacón, President of the Latino Commission on AIDS, explained that faith-based organizations, the educational system and even some families can lead MSM Latin men to live in isolation and make risky sexual choices.
Rodriguez says he’s aware of how stigma can lead to unsafe behaviors. “I grew up religious and went to a mostly African-American church. I understand the downlow and their fears and anxieties. When you ignore something it only fuels the problem.” What’s surprising, he said, is that in some communities ignorance and stigma around HIV rivals mid-nineties levels.
When Rodriguez found out that there was a rise in HIV infections for Latinx men who are having sex with men, it shocked him and angered him, he said. “Then I remembered what it was like to come out and the stigma of the word ‘gay.’ Even now I feel uncomfortable talking about my boyfriend with some family members. And if that’s me, a well-known gay dude, what’s it like for someone who’s closeted and then finds out that he’s positive? What are they going to do? Go to their family doctor?”
Sometimes Latinx men do go to their family doctor. And that’s where another point of failure can happen. A patient isn’t likely to provide a complete sexual history to a doctor who isn’t gay friendly. Consequently the doctor won’t suggest getting tested for HIV and other STIs. And if a patient does test and it comes back positive, too often that family doctor won’t stress the importance of adhering to the drug regimen, Rodriguez said.
“People can be scared to take pills in front of others, or they live with parents who don’t know their status,” Rodriguez says.
It’s not just family pressure and doctors who aren’t gay friendly that is leading to the rise in HIV diagnoses among Latinx men.
“It’s a laundry list of things in our community,” Rodriguez said. “Young Latinx men didn’t see all the things I did when I was younger, so they’re not taking [HIV] seriously.”
But the biggest issue is the shame, Rodriguez added. “It’s embedded in us as Latino people. It’s hard to shake.”
Encouraging men to shake off that shame is just one goal for Rodriguez’s partnership with Positively Fearless, a campaign funded by drugmaker Jannsen Therapeutics that helps to empower Latinx and Black gay and bi men and MSMs—the HIV statistics in the Black population are similarly harrowing—to get tested, speak up and seek appropriate care.
Rodriguez says that Latinx MSMs need allies, too. And that requires some serious outreach.
“We can make noise in our own community but we also need to educate people around us. There is so much information out there that is not current and informed and people make decisions on that and make judgments about others based on that. I can only imagine that it is so frightening, the fear of rejection from those you love or thinking you are dirty.”
The media vehicles for the messages include, Rodriguez said, “everything.”
“We are big on social media. We were at Atlanta Pride. Also we’re getting the messages out there in straight-up regular media. If anyone calls and says we need an emcee for this fundraiser, I say ‘I’m there.’”
Rodriguez has been surprised by the response from some who were shocked by his efforts to enlighten and educate people on the state of HIV/AIDS.
“When I started posting articles with Positively Fearless people said ‘why are you doing this?’ It’s so interesting in 2017 that people in entertainment were concerned that I was aligning myself with this issue. I ask them, ‘do you think people will think I’m positive? And then I’m not going to get jobs?’ That’s so absurd and based in ignorance.
“Back in the day you couldn’t come out as gay, now you can,” he added. “But when will we get to the point when familiar faces come out as positive and share their stories? That would be amazing and courageous.”
For more information about Positively Fearless, log on to: www.positivelyfearless.com.
Larry Buhl is a radio news reporter, screenwriter, and novelist living in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @LarryBuhl.