When Jason Villalobos moved to San Francisco in his early 20s, the Lompoc native was no stranger to adversity.
He had endured years of bullying and abuse from his peers at Lompoc High School, most of it centered around the fact that he was gay. Still, not even those often terrifying experiences would fully prepare him for what was ahead.
When he was 24, Villalobos lost a close friend, who died from AIDS complications. A year later, Villalobos himself was diagnosed as HIV-positive and told shortly after that he had full-blown AIDS.
“I was really sick and I thought I was going to die and was really hampered by depression and my own mental health issues, plus dealing with the stigma and the misinformation in society,” said Villalobos, now 34. “I felt like people were going to be scared of me and judge me and I really let my own shame inhibit my way of life.”
Rather than crumble under the weight of his situation, Villalobos instead decided to be an inspiration for others.
He sought out help to assist him with his treatment and lent whatever he could — his voice, face and story — to help out others who might be going through something similar.
Last month, nearly nine years after his initial diagnosis, Villalobos was honored for his efforts. The now-healthy activist, who is back living in Lompoc, was named to POZ Magazine’s “POZ 100” list of unsung heroes. The magazine, which is aimed at people living with and/or affected by HIV and AIDS, honored Villalobos for his work as a national spokesman for the “Greater Than AIDS” campaign, as well as for his community service, which includes speaking to high school and college students about health, sex education and bullying, among other topics.
“The individuals on this year's list may not consider themselves to be heroes, but we do,” Oriol Gutierrez, POZ’s editor-in-chief, said in a statement. “Each person — in his or her own unique way — is taking a brave stand against the virus. They are fighting back. From people who volunteer for AIDS service organizations or work as policy advocates, to those who act as educators to promote prevention and treatment, this list represents an incredibly diverse spectrum of people living with HIV and making a difference on the front lines in their communities.”
For Villalobos, the biggest hurdle was getting past the fear.
“Once I got past the depression and the ‘oh God, what are people gonna think’ sort of fear, I was truly able to help people. But in order to help people, I needed to be honest about who I was and I needed to be honest about the fact that I was living with this disease.”
That meant Villalobos needed to share his story with others, beginning with his own family.
He made the trip home from San Francisco to deliver the difficult news to his parents. Although that conversation didn’t go as he would’ve liked — he was basically turned away by his devout Catholic family — Villalobos said that the years since then have helped him come to understand his family’s initial reaction.
“I think it was a shock to their system,” he said, noting that he was angry at the time. “When I look back on it now, I’m not angry because my family wasn’t educated. They didn’t know how to react because they weren’t empowered with the knowledge that would give them the security to reassure me.”
After returning to the Bay area and undergoing treatments, Villalobos began sharing his story with others in an effort to raise money for the AIDS LifeCycle, a 545-mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles each summer that raises money for HIV/AIDS charities. He was inspired to join “The Ride,” which has a stop in Lompoc, when his friend died.
As his story began to spread, Villalobos’ profile began to grow and he started getting asked by various organizations to speak at their events.
“People saw a young, healthy, unashamed man living with the disease openly and thought, ‘We really could use someone like you,’” he said.
That soon led to his involvement with the “Greater Than AIDS” campaign, which saw his face go up on billboards and at bus stops and train stations in major markets around the country. He was also featured in a television spot for the campaign that debuted during a season premiere episode of “American Idol.”
His most visible moment came, though, when he was invited to appear on a 2010 episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show that he thought was going to be about volunteerism. After getting to the Chicago studio, he and the other guests instead found out that they were actually at one of Oprah’s big giveaway specials.
Villalobos and the other “givers,” as Oprah called them, received about $30,000 in tax-free gifts that day, including brand new Volkswagen Beetles.
“I was one of those wacko birds jumping up and down,” he said.
A clip of the audience reaction from that episode, which prominently featured Villalobos’ aforementioned jumping, soon went viral. It was replayed several times on the late night talk show circuit, including Conan, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel Live and The Bill Maher Show. It was also on a Barbara Walters special.
“People stopped me in grocery stores and on sidewalks in the Bay area,” said Villalobos, who still has some of the gifts from that show, but sold the car. “Although they were kind of poking fun at me, I appreciated it because it also raised my profile. More people knew who I was and more people asked me to talk about my message. There was a bigger audience and more ears to what I had to say.”
At a crossroads in his life, Villalobos moved back home to Lompoc last year. Although his parents are now very supportive of him, Villalobos said he was worried about how he would be received by the rest of his hometown.
Looking for ways to continue his activism in Lompoc, he eventually joined the local Planned Parenthood office and began speaking to students at his alma mater Lompoc High, as well as high schools in Santa Maria, through a Positive Peers program.
“I understand this culture and the attitudes and the lack of access to educational tools in Lompoc, so I feel like it’s my duty to do this,” he said. “And I get a lot out of it. I have a great sense of purpose for doing this sort of work. There’s no one else in Lompoc doing what I do, so that’s why I have to do it.”
He said he sets aside time for kids who want to talk frankly with him about safe sex. He pointed to statistics, like a survey that found that 20 percent of Americans still falsely believe that HIV can be contracted by sharing a drink, as evidence of that lack of information.
“I need to stay patient with people’s questions, because as ridiculous as they may sound to me, as someone who is educated on this, I really realize that there’s an honest need for education,” he said. “Sex-ed classes now are really failing our kids. Kids are going out into the world thinking they can get pregnant from oral sex.”
He said that poor early education had an influence on his present situation.
“The only way we’re going to empower our kids and actually educate them on sexual health is by going there and telling them how it is,” he said. “What really prevented me from making smart decisions with my own health is that we were not prepared to go out into the world and didn’t have the information we needed to make healthy decisions.”
Along with speaking at schools, Villalobos also makes himself readily available online. Through social media outlets, he said he has received requests from people, particularly teens, from all corners of the world. He makes it a point to answer all of them, and has often provided his phone number so that he can personally help guide the person through difficult situations, like coming out to his or her family.
“That’s something that can be very emotionally taxing, but I put myself out there for a reason,” he said, noting that he’s been through a lot of the things that today’s teens are experiencing. “If I were to ignore a request from someone, I’d be in the wrong business.”
He also films PSAs from his home computer and distributes them to various organizations. He said he will likely film one today, which has been designated as World AIDS Day across the globe.
Villalobos, who is currently working in the wine industry, said that he is proud of how far things have come since his teenage years, particularly in Lompoc. Lompoc High School, he noted, now has a Gay-Straight Alliance, something that didn’t exist when he graduated in 1997.
“In a small-town environment like Lompoc, the attitudes of the old guard are still dying out,” he said. “There’s still a lot of homophobia and still a lot of stigma associated with being an openly gay HIV-positive man. So I really truly honestly feel it’s one of my missions in life to be as open as I can be because I really shatter a lot of the misconceptions that people have. Lompoc has been incredibly welcoming and the community has been remarkably positive.”
Villalobos acknowledged that he has received some negative reaction as a result of his being so open and honest about his own life. That just comes with the territory, though, he said.
“If you want to make people angry, you try to change things,” he said. “As an agent of change — and that’s what I see myself as — I make people uncomfortable and I also tend to make them angry. I’ve read horrible things about myself online, but part of this work is acknowledging that there are people out there who don’t agree with me. Concentrating on the people who are willing to listen to my message, that’s what keeps me going.”