This is a doozy of a listen. Although I haven't been through any of the hardships that Jahlove Serrano has had to deal with, something about his life story is really accessible. Give it a spin.
Narrator: Before we move on to the next part of the show, we thought we should give you a heads up. In the next story we talk explicitly about sex and sexual violence, so if you're listening with children you might want to keep that in mind. The Bronx has come a long way since the 1980s when it was hit hard at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, but there are still some tough statistics attached to the place. Today, HIV infection rates are higher in The Bronx and in New York City as a whole than almost anywhere else in the US. Young gay black men are especially at risk. This is Jerome Avenue, and we're out on the street sweating looking for any patch of shade with Jahlove Serrano, model, dancer, and HIV activist.
Jahlove: Oh Jesus, Jesus. Lord have mercy. It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood and is it hot.
Narrator: Jahlove is a youth peer educator. He's braving the heat to hand out condoms and information about HIV testing to other young people in The Bronx.
Jahlove: Yeah, they're definitely taking the condoms.
Narrator: Jahlove is 24. He's an old pro at this. He's been doing it since he was a teenager, but the young woman with him, she asked us to call her Jalise, well, it's her first day.
Jalise: Can I just run through the sprinklers really fast? I'm gonna die.
Jahlove: Go ahead.
Narrator: Jalise hasn't talked to anyone yet, and she's so nervous she's having trouble catching her breath.
Jalise: I'm trying not to hyperventilate. It kind of, you know, makes people nervous.
Jahlove: Right. People are so shy in getting condoms. You know? That's why you always have to be the cool person, very smooth criminal about it.
Narrator: For a lot of teenagers, AIDS seems like it happened a long time ago, but for Jahlove and Jalise AIDS is a reality. They're both HIV positive, and they're part of a new generation of activists trying to stop the spread of HIV among young people in The Bronx, which involves just walking up to people and talking to them.
Jahlove: When you stop them, quick, straight to the point. "Hi, how are you? My name is such and such. I work with Montefiore Medical Hospital. I just want to give you some free condoms and lube, and also that we offer free HIV testing and counseling. All of our information's there. Enjoy the rest of your day." Bam, bam, bam.
Narrator: Now, Jahlove can be nonchalant about what he's doing. Talking to Jalise he acts like their work is as simple as handing out a flier, but it's not. It's a matter of life and death, an issue that most people don't want to talk about, let alone have a conversation on the street, but for Jahlove, getting the information out there and mentoring younger teens is the only way anything's ever gonna change, because his own story could have turned out pretty differently if he's been able to find out more about HIV as a teenager. Jahlove grew up in Hunts Point, one of the roughest neighborhoods in The Bronx. He knew he was gay from the time he was little. When he hit puberty, he started to have crushes and curiosity like any teenager. Saw straight kids at school dating, heard other people talking about sex, but he got no information at home. His mom couldn't accept his sexuality, and the word gay was barely even mentioned in his health class at school.
Jahlove: I was more than intimidated. I was more like "I don't even know how to start the conversation," like "What do I say?" I know I have these feelings. I don't want to be told that I'm wrong, meaning that no one's gonna tell me the right information. That's when I felt the need to gain the experience for myself.
Narrator: All of Jahlove's friends seemed to be having sex. After the freshman year of high school he did not want to come back a sophomore and still a virgin. He picked a guy he knew was interested and Jahlove was 15. It was the end of the summer.
Jahlove: At first it started out as consensual sex, but then it turned into rape, because when I said "no," he continued, and I had to wait until he was done. After that I was just like "Okay." I stood it for a little bit, and then I got myself out of there, and after that I got really ill. I didn't know what was happening to me, but it seemed like a bad flu, and that was the first indicator to me that something might have been wrong here.
Narrator: He overheard a rumor the next week. The guy that he'd been with had stood up in front of his church and disclosed that he was HIV positive. Jahlove was scared, but before he could deal with the situation, a whole other reality slapped him in the face.
Jahlove: My mother kicked me out of her house for being gay and also not helping contributing towards bills, and so at 16 I was homeless, in high school, but I couldn't focus on high school at that time so I dropped out of high school.
Narrator: He started staying with his aunt in The Bronx. She wanted him to help out with the bills, so he found a job at McDonald's, an hour and a half away. A year went by and he barely had time to see his friends, and as Jahlove got more depressed, he found himself obsessing over his status.
Jahlove: I was always, like, thinking about it, "Am I HIV positive? Am I HIV positive?"
Narrator: When he was 17, he went to a clinic to get tested, hoping and praying for good news. Two weeks later, he forced himself to go get the results.
Jahlove: Everything started happening in slow motion. The nurse sat me down in the room and the doctor came in in slow motion. The door opened up in slow motion. She opened up my chart in slow motion, and when the words rolled out of her mouth, "Mr. Serrano, you're HIV positive," it went through one ear and came out another.
Narrator: When he heard the diagnosis he got out of there as fast as he could and tried to put it out of his mind. It'd be a while before he got up the courage to see a doctor again, but somehow, even as everything seemed to be going wrong in his own life, something was pushing Jahlove to get out there and help other gay teenagers. He started working as an HIV peer educator at Montefiore Hospital in The Bronx, and Jahlove was starting to feel like a leader, somebody that everybody knows.
Jahlove: And it felt good. I felt good giving out free condom packs, asking people to take a free HIV test, and I definitely was hitting the adolescent population. So we were hitting 13 to 24, and it really felt good, but at the same time I felt like a hypocrite because here am I, I know my status, but I'm not even taking care of my status.
Narrator: Jahlove eventually did go see a doctor, but he couldn't bring himself to go to regular appointments. He was too ashamed, afraid that somebody might see him going in and out of the clinic. He was convinced that he was gonna die estranged from his family. Jahlove felt lost, and that's when he met a woman named Tyra, and things finally started to turn around.
Tyra: He was a bit bitter. He wanted the love from his family. He really wanted it bad, and he wasn't getting it, and so it made him bitter. Listen, I met this kid, he was, like, 16, 17 years old, drinking four or five Long Island Iced Teas a night, you know?
So, I knew that there was something wrong.
Narrator: Tyra Allure Ross is an activist, a performer, a model and a transgendered woman. She fled Trinidad-Tobago as a teenager. Her own family never accepted that she's transgendered. She met Jahlove at a club. She saw him dance and recruited him to be one of her backup dancers. They bonded immediately.
Jahlove: It's just, you ever met anybody that it just works? It just worked from day one, like, I saw her and I definitely met her at the point in my life where me and my mother's relationship was never a relationship, it was just that she gave birth to me, but with Tyra it's just like, I believe that's when I became alive, when I was born, because it's like, "I found my mommy." Like, that's my mommy.
Tyra: Those words just really touched me and I felt, like, "Whoa. This is really my kid, you know?" I can't have kids biologically, but he's just one of my kids that have just made me feel like I am a mother and I have a child to live for and to protect.
Narrator: Tyra works at The Bronx Pride Center and has been a mother to lots of young LGBT kids. It hasn't always been easy. She's lost two of her children to AIDS over the years, but she's assembled a sprawling family of siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles. With Tyra in his life, Jahlove finally had someone backing him up, and he wanted to live.
Jahlove: So I went back into high school, finished, I graduated high school, got myself into college, and I always wanted to pursue my modeling and dancing career, so I started pursuing that.
Narrator: Jahlove turned 21. He toured the country as a dancer. It was the life he always wanted. Everything was going great, except one thing. His health. He'd still never gotten on daily medication. He'd been getting weaker, and when he finally went to see the doctor, they told him he had full blown AIDS and cancer, Kaposi's sarcoma.
Jahlove: My spirit was really low. I was just like, "AIDS and cancer, one of these things has to give. I can't go through both. It has to be one. I can deal with AIDS but not cancer." Something about that word cancer.
Narrator: For the first time, Jahlove seemed to realize that if he was gonna reach everybody he wanted to help, especially younger gay teenagers, he would have to start taking care of himself, and the only way to do that was to accept his diagnosis.
Jahlove: I remember one day sitting in a hospital bed at that time and I was like, again, I'm not religious or spiritual, I was, like, said a prayer, I was like "Lord, you see me through this and I'm gonna do your work." And after that prayer, I stayed on my medication and my immune system, she was shooting herself back up, and the cancer went into remission, and I was just like "Okay, I know what this is. I know what I've got to do."
Narrator: Since he's gotten healthy, Jahlove has pretty much become a 24/7 activist, and Tyra is so proud of him. She says that now that he's got nothing left to hide he's pretty much unstoppable. Jahlove has worked as an HIV testing counselor, and talks to high school kids about safe sex, not just in the classroom, also on the streets of The Bronx.
Jahlove: ... free tambien. So, gracias and enjoy the rest of your day, okay?
Woman 1: Thank you.
Jahlove: No problem. My Spanish was really off right there, but we got our point across, and we gave out free condoms and gave them information.
Narrator: To some of us, Jahlove's world may seem really foreign, growing up a gay teen in the big city, but is it really? Jahlove's story could be mine. I mean, just like him, when I was a teenager I was too young to understand the gravity of my decision. At that age, you can make choices that affect you the rest of your life. The beauty of what Jahlove has done is taking his personal tragedy and turning it into triumph, and not just for him, but for his whole community. Today on State of the Reunion, as a part of our Black History Month coverage, we are looking at the new African American leadership that is coming up from the grassroots. Next up, a black sorority goes green.
Woman 2: When it really comes down to it, most of us are not willing to make the kind of sacrifices that have to be made in order to create a sustainable environment.
Narrator: That's next on State of the Reunion. Support for State of the Reunion comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PRX, the Public Radio Exchange, a growing network of listeners, producers and stations collaborating to make public radio more public, PRX.org.