I was born in September 1986, along with my twin sister, in the back of a cop car in New York City. I was raised in a heterosexual, Latino, Catholic household, and consequently, sex was never a topic of discussion. My mother’s sex education consisted of this warning: “Never bring a girl home pregnant.” That was cool with me — I knew I wasn’t going to be having sex with any girls.
I contracted HIV the first time I had sex, a few days before my 16th birthday, on the second day of my sophomore year of high school. When it came to losing my virginity, condoms were never a thought. Yes, I knew about STIs, unwanted pregnancy, condoms — even HIV and AIDS. But I honestly thought these things happened only when you were having sex with a woman, not with a man. When it came to sex with another man, I was clueless.
In most schools, the sex ed curriculum is heterosexual-based, and doesn’t include queer kids. In 2012, the New York City Department of Education finally updated its HIV and AIDS curriculum from the 2005 version. The 2012 update focuses on medical, technical, and legal changes in HIV prevention, testing, and treatment. From kindergarten through the sixth grade, students are required to receive five lessons each year. In the seventh through 12th grades, students receive six lessons each year. Even though there have been updates to the curriculum, it still doesn’t address the LGBTQ community, and that’s a problem.
More than 110,000 New Yorkers are infected with HIV. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that more than a quarter of all new HIV infections occur before age 25. This is why I have devoted my life to educating adolescents and young adults on the realities of contracting HIV at a young age. I talk to youth of all ages, from middle school to college and beyond.
Unfortunately, this population still looks at HIV/AIDS as a gay man’s disease. I love breaking down ignorance and stigma by sharing my story; by the end of our interactions, most youth understand that it is a human disease, and that if they engage in unprotected sex or high-risk behaviors, they are susceptible to contracting HIV.
There was a point in my life when was I embarrassed about having HIV. That’s no longer the case for me. I am living honorably with AIDS. My silence was killing me, but the minute I opened up about being HIV positive, I started to live. I learned self-love, acceptance, and self-respect. Now that I am so open about my status, I have the respect of my family, friends, and my community.
I have learned that true wealth is health. I believe there are two great moments in your life: the day you were born and the day you discover why.
Jahlove Serrano is a health educator, youth advocate, HIV/ AIDS activist, and androgynous model-background dancer-choreographer. He has worked with the New York State AIDS Institute; the National Gay Men’s Advocacy Coalition; the Global Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS; the AIDS Alliance for Children, Youth and Families; and the White House. He appeared in the New York State Department of Health campaign “HIV Stops with Me” and is a speaker with the nonprofit organization Love Heals.