An Early Awakening
By Jerry Portwood
Photo: Jerick Hoffer (far right) with his Portland pals | Courtesy of Sexual and Gender Minority Youth Resource Center
It may seem drag queens were born for drama. Audiences have tuned in to RuPaul’s Drag Race for six seasons not only for the sequins and glitter but so they can witness on-screen antics as queens tuck, pad, and squabble. The residual benefit has been when contestants also revealed stories about abuse, rejection, and living with HIV. Jerick Hoffer, known to his countless fans as Jinkx Monsoon, the lovely drag queen who won the Season 5 crown, was more fortunate. Before moving to Seattle, he grew up in Portland, Ore., where he was raised with many loving gay people in his life. He came out in middle school, finding support at the Sexual and Gender Minority Youth Resource Center. The 26-year-old advocate for HIV talks about why he hopes millennials like him continue to stay informed about safer sex practices.
“I first learned about what AIDS was because one of my mom’s gay male friends actually was positive. My mom was young and she had lots of gay male friends, and it was very clear from a young age that I was probably gay. I just didn’t know what that meant. I think my mom was doing everything she could to keep me safe by making me aware of that stuff as early as possible.
“I didn’t learn that he was positive until after he passed away, and I asked what had happened. I was about 7 years old, and my mom decided to talk to me about it then and there. That was my first experience learning there’s a virus out there that just slowly kills people. I understood that people get it from having sex with each other, and even though that was a weighty concept for me to grasp, I’m glad I learned about it at a very early age. My mom had already told me where babies come from, and she just said that ‘sex,’ can also transmit diseases. That was a really hard thing for me to process — there’s something adults do that can make a baby or can kill them. Then I started meeting positive people at the queer youth resource center.
“When I first came out, I was nervous because everything was so new to me. There was the feeling that the whole world just opened up to me for the first time, but I also knew the risks. There are so many things — not just HIV — that can screw with your week if you make the wrong decision in bed.
“I live down the street from a gay men’s health facility where you can get tested for free as much as you want. But some people don’t have testing facilities or a safe place where you can go talk about being a gay man and your sexual experiences and get your HIV screening, where you can feel comfortable and safe. One of the benefits of OraQuick is that people who don’t have stuff like that, or who are too uncomfortable going in and talking about their sex practices with another person, can have something.
“Even though I would love to keep the conversations going and make it so we feel normal talking about these things and being open about our status — where it doesn’t have to be stigmatized — I would rather that people have a way to get tested that’s encouraging, and makes them feel safe and comfortable. If the reason they’re shrugging off this responsibility of knowing their own status is that they’re uncomfortable talking to people about it, we have a remedy for that — an at-home test that removes that insecurity and that fear a little bit.”
Jinkx Monsoon is currently performing in Provincetown through Sept. 20