Pedro Julio Serrano: "Unteaching" an Island

Pedro Julio's closest friends say he is misunderstood by some Puerto Ricans who only see Pedro Julio amidst controversy. He appears on radio shows, talk shows, and is quoted almost daily in the island's biggest newspapers, fighting against the powers that be.

But for those who know him well, Pedro Julio's private persona is much less serious. He's a laugher, a prankster, and a charmer, his close friends say. He especially loves scaring his mother, most recently by pretending he was a ghost.

One of his best friends, Karlo Karlo, a makeup artist and gay rights activist in New York City, says that Pedro Julio can get anyone on his side, if he's given the chance.

When Pedro Julio was seated next to two conservative women in their late sixties from "el campo," or rural Puerto Rico, last year at a dinner at a close friends' house in San Juan, Karlo Karlo says that at first tensions were high.

"These two ladies were very very religious. They were evangelical, and they only knew Pedro Julio from seeing him on television," Karlo Karlo said. "But by the end of the night, were all laughing so hard. I mean, we were all truly having fun, and these two ladies loved Pedro Julio. They just couldn't get enough of him."

By the end of the night, the women were converts.

"'Pedro Julio, sabes que en realidad tu eres un muchacho muy bueno. Es que siempre te veo peleando en la television," one woman told him, according to Karlo Karlo. (Translation: Pedro Julio, you know what you're actually a very good man. It's just that I always see you fighting on the television.)

Since the dinner, the two women have continued to ask for Pedro Julio to visit, and when they returned to el campo they shared with their fellow lady-friends what they believed was Pedro Julio's biggest secret of all -- he's a closeted nice guy.

Pedro Julio's life hasn't been easy. He had a heart condition as a child which would cause him to faint, he survived cancer at the age of 36, he was hospitalized after collapsing from exhaustion at 38, and for the last two decades he's had to deal with the realities of living with HIV.

Still, Serrano is perfectionist, a micro-manager, and a "work-horse," as he terms it. Despite a compromised immune system, Pedro Julio routinely goes 24, 36, and even 40 hours without sleeping. To his frustration, his body often gives out before he does.

"I've had to learn that I'm human," Pedro Julio said. Pedro Julio's struggles have lead him to realize how short life is, and has made him impatient to finish his work and spread his message.

"I'm very impatient. I feel desperate to finish already. I always want to accelerate the pace of things," he said. "I just want to convince everyone. I feel like if I just talk to someone, I can convince them."

His boyfriend, and his mother, have tried to step in, but Pedro Julio doesn't like hearing it.

"He has HIV, you know, and he's always been delicate with his health, so I'm always concerned," his mother said. "He gets exhausted physically and emotionally, and I told him he needs to slow down, but he won't. Nobody can stop him."

Pedro Julio's work habits have taken a toll on other people in his life including his future husband Steven. The couple broke up for nearly two years because Toledo felt that Pedro Julio wasn't able to balance the activism with the relationship. But they both say they're happier than ever, and that they're working hard to make it work.

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