If you only know Emmy-winning actor, singer, and media personality Jai Rodriguez from his time on the pioneering pop-culture television phenomenon, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, you must not own a TV anymore — because the multi-talented star of stage and screen seems to be everywhere these days.
Aside from numerous hosting gigs over the years on television (including on Latin networks like NuvoTV), Rodriguez has had more notable acting projects than we’re able to list (including memorable roles on Malibu Country, Bones, Nip/Tuck, Grace & Frankie, and a lead in the critically-acclaimed feature film, Oy Vey My Son is Gay!!).
Though Rodriguez was the youngest of the “Fab Five” on Queer Eye (he was only 26 when he signed on), the talented vocalist had already been enjoying a successful Broadway career — having performed the role of the HIV-positive character, Angel, in Rent — for over half a decade. Many who know him from television may not realize that Rodriguez is also a successful recording artist who has performed onstage with legends like Gladys Knight, Patti Labelle, and Brian McKnight (and was even featured in Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” video with Beyoncé).
Still, somehow the in-demand performer manages to find time to help raise money and awareness for HIV causes, including AIDS Walk, APLA, Richmond/Ermet Aid Foundation, and Life Group LA. His latest project — teaming up with Janssen’s Positively Fearless campaign (which promotes HIV awareness and education within black and Latino communities) — hits close to home. After years of advocacy work around HIV and AIDS, Rodriguez says, “I thought I really knew my stuff.” — that is, until he had a friend point out that if current HIV transmission rates continue, one in every four gay or bi Latino men will become positive in their lifetime.
“That shook me to my core,” admits Rodriguez, “but then I really thought about our community… everything from the perception of the machismo Latinx and the way we’re supposed to behave, to the fact that we still, within the Latinx community, have severe stigma against homosexuality, whether it’s religious based or otherwise.”
He strongly feels these backwards taboos prevent many Latino gay and bi men from coming out, from getting tested for HIV, and from seeking care or adhering to treatment once diagnosed. So when Rodriguez heard about the Positively Fearless campaign, he says he knew he wanted to be a part of it.
But this wasn’t the first time Rodriguez’s life was affected by HIV:
“When I was 16, my aunt came out at Thanksgiving dinner as having AIDS,” he recalls. “Now, I’m saying AIDS specifically because that’s what it was at that time.” His aunt’s virus had already developed to Stage 3 HIV (also known as AIDS). Rodriguez says his aunt had contracted HIV from her husband, who they had been told passed away from cancer seven years earlier.
“I come from a Puerto Rican-Italian family where you don’t talk about sex… so, it was just that, ‘Rico was sick.’”
This was back in the early 1990s and Rodriguez still gets emotional when remembering some of the discrimination his aunt faced. This is why he says fighting stigma is just as important as ever.
“To this day, if I do a fundraiser related to HIV/AIDS issues, [many family members] won’t post it to their social media. They won’t because people still are so triggered by the words ‘HIV’ or ‘AIDS’ that they almost don’t want to be associated — even though it has so incredibly impacted our family. I feel fear is the thing that paralyzes us and is often times based on a lack of knowledge.”
Rodriguez is currently starring in the CBS crime drama, Wisdom of the Crowd, and onstage at Caesars’s Paris Las Vegas Hotel (alongside Kendra Wilkinson) in the comedy, Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man. Despite his stardom, what Rodriguez really wants is to break down walls between people, something with many meanings in our post-Trump world.
We are all simply people in various states of health, he says, in essence, making us “HIV equal.” Though he is not poz, Rodriguez says we must “not let statuses define who we are.” Part of this campaign’s aims is to educate and help empower black and Latino gay and bisexual men to be “positively fearless” in taking charge of their health. For those who are poz, that includes finding a doctor, getting on treatment, and sticking with it. For those who aren’t, it’s about creating an environment where people can talk openly about their status and their health, and encourage others to use prevention tools to stay healthy.
But Rodriguez says, we still have a long way to go in supporting our friends, neighbors, and family members living with HIV.
“In Rent, there’s a whole support group scene… They sing, ‘Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care?’ — and to think that that refrain, written in 1995, is still valid and still going through the minds of those who are newly diagnosed is — it’s mind-boggling,” Rodriguez says. “Positively Fearless is about celebrating people who are really moving forward and taking the right steps to take care of themselves, and in turn, really take care of others, and help end the stigma around HIV and raise up awareness about what is happening within the community.”