As Told To: 'HIV is everyone's business as long as it exists'

Jade Elektra (a.k.a. Alphonso King, Jr.) is a Toronto-based drag queen, musician, DJ, actor, writer and HIV+ activist, and has long been an advocate for people living with and affected by HIV.

As told to Sadaf Ahsan 8 minute read December 20, 2021
jade elektra, a.k.a Alphonso King Jr

Jade Elektra, also known as Alphonso King Jr, founded POZ-TO, now known as Mingle, a monthly social event and fundraiser created to fight stigma around those living as HIV+. SUPPLIED

Jade Elektra (a.k.a. Alphonso King, Jr.) is a Toronto-based drag queen, musician, DJ, actor, writer and HIV+ activist, and has long been an advocate for people living with and affected by HIV. She is dedicated to bringing awareness to issues of racial discrimination, equality and queer rights. She also founded POZ-TO, now known as Mingle, a monthly social event and fundraiser created to fight stigma around those living as HIV+. Her incredible song “Undetectable,” sung to the tune of Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable,” is an inspiration to the community and echoes her message. This is her story.

I was HIV+ in Tampa, Florida, where I am originally from. I tested positive in 1990, and I believe I became HIV+ in 1989. Part of my leaving Florida had to do with that, I didn’t want to disclose the news to my family. I did to a couple of people, but back then, it was really rough telling people because you could lose your job, they gossip, all of that. Tampa was also so small, and I had worked for most of the gay bars there at that point. So I had come up with a plan that I was going to go and do all the things that I always wanted to do, because back then, being HIV+ was considered a death sentence. I started planning on taking out a big loan so I could travel and do all of those things. But by the summer of 1991, I woke up one day and I thought, ‘Hey, you’re an idiot. You’ll probably be as healthy as a horse and you’ll be fine.’ So I scrapped that idea, but I had a big blowout with my dad Thanksgiving of that year, and that really was the catalyst of me leaving. I remember him saying, “Oh, you’re running around with those faggots, and you’re going to get AIDS,” and all this stuff, and I was like, I just can’t. I can’t.

So, in the spring of 1992, I moved to New York and it was the best thing I could have done for myself. I landed right in the middle of what was left of the cast of 1990’s Paris Is Burning: Willi Ninja, Pepper LaBeija, Octavia St. Laurent, Dorian Corey, Paris Dupree. All of those people were part of my life and helped me learn what I needed to know because I was really green coming to New York City and I didn’t know anything. I ended up in the drag family House of LaBeija and, shortly after that, they started filming a lot of drag films in New York. I started auditioning, I was in To Wong Foo, Party Girl, Pictures of Baby Jane Doe. But because of my work there, I realized I wasn’t as competitive as I thought I was for the ballroom scene, so I left the House of LaBeija and started concentrating on auditioning and DJing, which meant I got to do a lot of traveling. I started my own drag show called The Illusions; I did a lot of stuff while I was in New York. It was freer, I could tell people that I was HIV+, but it didn’t hold me back from anything. I look back on it now and I don’t even know when I slept. To me, New York in the ‘90s seemed like the last big hurrah of the party scene. But 9/11 changed everything; a lot of people left the city, a lot of people lost their lives. The energy completely changed and former mayor Rudy Giuliani started his war on gay bars and clubs, shutting down places where there was dancing without a cabaret license.

jade elektra

‘New York is one of those places that you have to get up and go, but Toronto is very ‘hurry up and wait,’ says Jade Elektra of the transition from living in NYC to Toronto. SUPPLIED

So soon after that, I came to Canada. In 2005, I got invited up to Montreal to DJ and perform and that’s when I met my now-husband John. A long distance relationship is hard to do, and so we tried to keep in touch but it didn’t last. By 2009, we reconnected through a social network that also didn’t last, but we rekindled things. He’s HIV+ also, and wasn’t taking very good care of himself at that time. We made a pact that we would take our meds when I called on the fours – 4 p.m. and 4 a.m. – and we did every day. We got married the following year and I relocated to Toronto. It was a transition; New York is one of those places that you have to get up and go, but Toronto is very ‘hurry up and wait.’

When I got here, there was a support group called Out and Poz, but they weren’t out, they were meeting in secret. I felt like it wasn’t a good way to be. We need to be out if we’re going to fight the stigma, people have to know that we’re HIV+ and that we’re okay and we’re okay with ourselves. So it became my goal to start an event that was out and kind of rubbed it in your face that, yeah, we’re HIV+. I called it POZ-TO, a monthly event and fundraiser to raise awareness. We started at a place called Goodhandy’s on Church, which is now Club 120, and it did very well at first because it still wasn’t in the heart of the village. It was a little ways away, so people weren’t being spotted going into the party. Once our slots started to get cut down so the bar could make money with other opportunities, I moved the party to Crews & Tangos where I was a resident DJ. And that changed everything – people would not come into the party, they would come by the door and donate money, but that was it. Not everyone appreciated the name either, so we changed it at one point to Daddy Issues, and Mingle once we moved to Buddies. The hope was to just create a community. And we did, there were people who were driving into the city because they had nothing like that in their small town. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to host an event since COVID-19 came along but we do plan to come back eventually.

Jade Elektra Undetectable=Untransmissable

‘U=U (Undetectable = Untransmittable, an informational campaign about how effective HIV medications are in preventing sexual transmission of HIV) changes the playing field, says Jade Elektra. SUPPLIED

The fact is we can’t fight stigma in the closet. It’s important for the rest of the community to see that HIV+ people are not sitting around waiting to die. But a lot of people do still have that vision even though things have changed, meds have changed and people are living a lot longer. Earlier this year, I hosted a seminar on aging with HIV, and I met people in their 70s and 80s who were around at the beginning of the AIDS pandemic. It reminded me that, when I came out, there were a group of older gay men who sort of looked out for me. The kids who are coming up now, there is no mentorship. They’re getting educated by reality shows, but it’s better to learn from people who were there. That’s another big reason I wanted Mingle to exist, as a place for all the younger people who are coming up HIV+. It’s to build that bridge. We need to reach younger people and give them more information so they can make better decisions and keep some things alive. For example, in the way that the city is on a path to get rid of gay bars. The village is getting smaller and smaller, but we need our safe spaces so that we don’t have to look over our shoulders.

‘There’s no mentorship for the kids’

Sex positivity is an important subject to me to discuss. I remember being the age I was and finding out my diagnosis, thinking no one’s ever going to want to have sex with me ever again because I’m tainted. U=U (undetectable = untransmittable, an informational campaign about how effective HIV medications are in preventing sexual transmission of HIV) changes the playing field. Unfortunately, the problem with is that the laws have not caught up. I have a friend who has been in prison for four or five years because he didn’t disclose. Meanwhile, he was on his meds so he would have been undetectable. But because he got arrested back then, he’s still in jail, and the law has not been changed.

This is the reason why this conversation is so important; we need to get everyone engaged. HIV is everyone’s business as long as it exists. It’s everyone’s business to figure out what we need to do about it and to make things even better.

Sadaf Ahsan is a Toronto-based culture writer, editor and stereotypical middle child. She can be reached here.
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