Emmy Award Winner, Jai Rodriguez, Is Making a Profound Impact in the Latinx Community
I had the pleasure to interview Jai Rodriguez. Jai is best known for hosting the Emmy-winning TV show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and his appearance as Angel — an HIV positive character — in Broadway’s “RENT”, is partnering with Positively Fearless to educate the Latinx community about HIV and encourage men to be fearless in taking charge of their health. Despite overall progress in reducing HIV diagnoses in the U.S. and treatment advances, HIV continues to have a profound impact on the Latinx community, and Jai is using his public platform to help bring the Latinx community together and inspire them to step up in the fight against HIV.
What is your backstory?
My backstory really begins in my teens. I was fortunate enough to have been accepted into performing arts high school for 11th and 12th grade, so I was able to participate in a level of training that most people wouldn’t typically acquire until their college years. Right out of high school I auditioned for the role of Angel for the Broadway show RENT, which led to a 5-year run of me playing the character on stage. I really believe my early theater training played a role in me being awarded this opportunity, actually making me the youngest person ever selected for the show’s cast on Broadway. I feel incredibly blessed and it’s crazy to think that this year actually marks the 20th anniversary since I took the stage for that role. Also, stemming from that experience, I was picked to join the cast of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which ended up being a hugely successful, Emmy-award winning show than ran for several years and brought me into the national spotlight.
What is the most interesting story that occurred to you during the course of your career?
My most interesting story takes place during the height of Queer Eye — it was a whirlwind. I was able to connect with so many people from all walks of life and got to meet some of the biggest stars in the world. The highlight of this time for me was when I was approached by someone I had always believed to be iconic — Jennifer Lopez. She stopped me at a hotel in Vegas to tell me how much she and her mother loved my show and after that, I had the chance to get to know her better. One time specifically, after Marc Anthony’s concert, we had dinner on a boat. We just talked casually and that was when I had what I like to call my “ah-ha!” moment. The definition of celebrity just went out of my mind because I realized we are all after similar principles, and we all have our own dreams. And while some people are more visible than others, at the end of the day, we are all just people. We should treat everyone the same and that’s how I try to continue living my life with those I meet along the way.
Can you tell me more about how you are using your role as a celeb to make a difference?
HIV has long been a topic that is important to me, so I was excited about the opportunity to join forces with Janssen in support of their Positively Fearless movement, which aims to educate and help empower Black and Latinx gay and bisexual men to be “positively fearless” in taking charge of their health when it comes to HIV. These communities are significantly more affected by HIV than any other group of individuals in the United States. In fact, if current rates continue, one in two gay and bisexual Black men, and one in four gay and bisexual Latinx men, will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime.
One of the biggest factors contributing to these alarming stats is the stigma associated with HIV and homosexuality — this is something I’ve witnessed firsthand. Fear of judgment from family and friends can lead people to avoid getting tested for HIV, and many of those who receive a positive diagnosis to avoid or delay seeking treatment.
As a result, too few Latinx people living with HIV receive the treatment they need and many of those on medication aren’t taking it properly. In fact, Latinx people are twice as likely to report missing doses of their medication. This is a problem because when a person living with HIV misses just a few doses, they face the risk of developing drug resistance, which means your medication stops working to fight HIV. I worry that not enough people living with HIV — especially young Latinx men — are aware of the significant risks that HIV medication can pose, so I’ve been fortunate to use my platform to hopefully bring some awareness to the topic. And I strongly encourage anyone who being treated for HIV — and especially anyone who struggles to follow their medication regimen — to visit www.positivelyfearless.com and take the “Know Your Risk” quiz and discuss the results with their healthcare provider to understand their risk for developing HIV medication resistance.
I also hope that my work with Positively Fearless will ultimately inspire others in the Latinx community to help create an environment where people can talk openly about HIV and those living with the virus feel supported by friends and family and can openly seek treatment without fear of judgment.
What inspired you to join the HIV movement, Positively Fearless?
When I was a teenager, my aunt and cousin were both diagnosed with AIDS. My aunt was one of the first of our local community to be diagnosed — and it wasn’t well received. I witnessed first-hand the reactions of those who learned about her status and it was disheartening to see that kind of judgment towards someone who brought such joy into my life. Two years after my aunt passed away, I was cast in the Broadway show, RENT, playing an HIV-positive character named Angel. It was such a great feeling being able to spotlight HIV in a positive way — it really sparked my passion for advocacy, which I’ve continued through various organizations ever since.
Through this work, I knew that we had made great strides in the fight against the virus and that diagnosis rates were declining. And that’s true, overall. But I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know that within my own community — among gay and bisexual Latinx men — this wasn’t the case.
So once I learned about the staggering diagnoses rates and the fact that our community disproportionately struggles to engage in effective treatment, I knew I needed to take action. Joining forces with Positively Fearless provided me the perfect opportunity to educate my own community and encourage people to talk openly about HIV health, and for those living with HIV to seek treatment and stick to it. I really believe that honest and judgment-free conversations — among friends, with family and health care professionals — is key to reducing the impact of HIV on the Latinx community.
Can you tell me a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?
There are a number of advocates involved with the Positively Fearless campaign, but two particularly inspiring stories are those of Deondre Moore and Adrian Altamirano, HIV advocates who you can see featured in a video on www.PositivelyFearless.com. To me, two men embody the essence of fearlessness — a very young age to they each decided to speak out about their diagnosis and have become passionate advocates focused on reducing the impact of HIV on their communities and improving the lives of those currently living with the virus. It’s truly admirable and I’m honored to partner with them on this campaign.
What are 5 things you wished someone had told you when you first started?
1. To get all the training possible when I was a kid (and when it was free) — I wish I had taken advantage of more of those opportunities back then. It’s funny, as a kid you don’t always realize the value of things when they’re in front of you and you grow to understand these things as an adult, especially when you are responsible for your own bills!
2. Not everyone has your best interest at heart. You need to remember to take care of yourself while still being kind to others. At the end of the day, remember to make sure you are okay before you give more of yourself to lend a hand to others because you are the best help when you are your best self.
3. What I was wearing during Queer Eye was NOT OKAY! Up until that point, I had only really worked in theatrical productions, so I had started off wearing costumes because that’s what I was used to doing. When I was on the show I wasn’t really wearing clothes that reflected me as an individual. When the show ended I looked back at the photos I was saying to myself “Who is that guy?” — I wish someone had just told me it was okay to be myself even if it meant not wearing a designer brand.
4. It is okay not to constantly be thinking about the future and what is coming next. I’ve learned now how important it is to just take a deep breath and really embrace what’s happening in the moment.
5. Last, but not least not to be afraid to express my opinion, even if my opinion wasn’t the same as others’ around me — that my opinion was valid. I truly believe it’s important for everyone to realize their voice is valuable and meant to be heard.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Jesus. I would like to find out if we are getting it right or wrong as a society. There are so many opinions on how we should live our lives and many of them are founded in some sort of religion. Growing up as a Christian, I would love to just go back and ask him “Hey, is this what you meant? We are a little confused down here and just want to make sure we’re going okay.”