By day, Jahlove Serrano is a hardworking New Yorker, trying to educate youth about the realities of HIV. And some nights, Serrano becomes Jahlisa A. Ross, a striking drag queen who struts across the dance floor.
“When I’m in my alter ego and I hit the stage, nothing else matters because I know I’m about to have fun performing for people who love the art form of drag,” Serrano says.
Only 29, Serrano has managed to reconcile the different aspects of his life and personality. He gets much satisfaction in his career, working as an HIV health educator for the nonprofit Love Heals, and relieves some of his work stress at New York’s legendary gay nightclubs. He’s lived a lot in three decades, which helped him mature and embrace himself sooner than his peers.
Serrano tested positive when he was only 15; within a year, he was a homeless high school dropout trying to survive in the Bronx.
“My reaction to my diagnosis was none,” Serrano says. “I was more worried about how I was going to survive without the support of my parents.”
The teenager managed to find his way out of poverty, realizing he wanted to help kids avoid the kind of situation he had found himself in as a teen. He grew up in a Catholic Latino household, where sex wasn’t discussed. The situation was the same at school.
“I wasn’t taught how to protect myself, especially when having sex with another man,” he recalls.
Working with Love Heals—which aims to eliminate new HIV infections — has made a passionate advocate out of Serrano. He passes out condoms, pushes people to get tested, and encourages HIV-positive folks like him to stay healthy and, well, positive. Serrano appears in the upcoming “I’m Positively ________” campaign (sponsored by Plus and Gilead), and as his drag alter ego he was part of the HIV Stops With Me media campaign. (“Treatment gives me strength,” Serrano said in the advertisement.)
Serrano is thankful that many people his age now know the facts about HIV — how it’s transmitted and what to do if you get it. Things keep getting even better when it comes to communication about the disease, he says.
“Now with PrEP there’s more conversations around HIV and AIDS,” Serrano says.
When he was first diagnosed, Serrano avoided conversations about HIV with potential boyfriends. The stigma of the disease prevented him from getting close physically and emotionally. So much has changed, he says, and now Serrano embraces all sides of himself and expects everyone else to do the same.
“As I got older and more educated on HIV and my body,” he says, “I became more confident in myself and [lost my] fear of rejection.”