Why Queer Eye Alum Jai Rodriguez Continues to Fight for AIDS Awareness: 'There's Still a Stigma'

For Jai Rodriguez, raising awareness about AIDS is personal.

Chatting with PEOPLE, the original Queer Eye member, 41, spoke about his work with AIDS Walk Los Angeles and the reason why he decided to advocate for more awareness regarding the disease: his aunt, who died of AIDS when he was 16.

"There was an instance when I took my aunt to the dentist and he put on four pairs of gloves in front of her, which was humiliating," he tells PEOPLE. "There was another time where my mom, with the best of intentions, brought her pink sweatpants and a pink sweatshirt as appropriate church attire. My aunt began to cry. And she goes, 'You're treating me like a patient, not a person.'"

"The composite of all these memories is what fueled my performance as Angel," he adds, referring to his role as the character who dies of an AIDS-related illness in the musical theater production Rent.

With his aunt in mind, Rodriguez started working with several philanthropic organizations focused on addressing HIV/AIDS awareness and raising money to help those living with the disease. For him, the AIDS Walk LA became one of his preferred philanthropies. (The walk went virtual last year due to the pandemic.)

"There's still a stigma with communities of color. They're not comfortable or willing to talk about sexuality," he says, referring to the rising number of HIV-positive cases in the Latinx community. "It made me sick to my stomach that infection rates are going down on a national level, but they're actually going up in certain communities."

In fact, 27 percent of new diagnoses are among Latinx people, even though they make up 18 percent of the country's population, according to the CDC. For Rodriguez, it's about increasing awareness about the stigma, treatment and access to testing.

"Once you have that knowledge, I think it takes away the stigma of those who are living with HIV," he adds. "So many in the generation before us lived with shame."

Along with addressing issues related to the disease, he's also continuing to make his mark by playing roles of important people in the LGBTQ community. In HBO Max's Equal, he plays José Sarria, the first openly gay person to run for office. 

"He did not get elected but used his passion for change by making his shows at The Black Cat [San Francisco] both political and comical, giving the community of San Francisco a safe space during a time where it was illegal to dress in drag," he says. "He was a champion for his community."

Rodriguez is also working on a talk show-style series called The Social Bubble featuring the likes of Love & Hip Hop: New York's Tahiry Jose, comedian Mike Cannon, Julie Young and Garrett Vogel.

As his presence in media continues to be a beacon for representation in the gay, Latinx community, Rodriguez makes one thing clear: he wants the world to keep making positive progress on these issues.

"I don't ever want to get back to a place where people are operating from fear when we have all the knowledge we need to live healthy and incredible lives," he says.

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