Thursday, July 21, 2011

Discussion: Celebrity Impact On HIV/AIDS

In a recent Queerty piece, Daniel Villarreal bemoaned the lack of HIV-positive celebrities in Hollywood. At one time, we had a slew of famous people coming out as poz in order to put a face on a deadly disease and give the virus the attention required to halt the spread of a horrible epidemic.

During the '90s, brave men like Rock Hudson came out as HIV-positive and combated the stigma of the disease as being "other." In recent times, who fills this role? We have this notion that HIV is manageable, much like cancer, yet still, there's no-one living openly with HIV who can "put a face on it."

I agree with Daniel. Who really thinks there aren't any celebrities with HIV currently working today?

The conversation evolved off the blog though, and Daniel asked me a complicated question that I've had to address before: Is it really wise to even term HIV manageable? While it's certainly treatable, isn't it counterproductive to prevention to allow educational campaigns to stress that it is no longer necessarily deadly?

The Catch-22, of course, being that hiding that information can promote unnecessary stigma against people living with HIV. So what's the solution?

It's a subject I've had to address before. In May, Dan Savage gave an interview to Hivster in which he rashly claimed that we should be hiding the facts about HIV:

"HIV [prevention campaigns] are fatally compromised, terribly conflicted. They seem designed, first and foremost, to avoid making the already HIV+ guys feel bad about being positive. That fear—that this, that, or the other HIV education campaign might stigmatize having HIV and hurt the feelings of guys who have HIV — is paralyzing and it leads to neutered, ineffective, flaccid campaigns. They can’t say, 'Don’t get HIV! It’s life-altering, it’s hard!' and 'HIV is not big deal! You’ll be fine! Guys with HIV are living wonderful, rewarding lives!' at the same time."

I respond to statements like this very simply: you can't win by lying or hiding the truth. You can't educate with obfuscation. The reason I'm progressive is because I believe in telling the truth. Changing the perception that HIV is manageable flies in the face of the purpose of education and promotes negative stereotypes of people living with HIV.

Is Dan suggesting that we should be making HIV-positive people feel ashamed of their serostatus? I reject that notion, as do most HIV advocates. Stigmatizing poz people as a method of prevention is a dangerous campaign which turns people living with HIV/AIDS into casualties of opinion. Clearly, unfounded bias is in of itself flawed.

Even more simply? People don't say "Oh, well, cancer is manageable. I'm going to go get loaded on carcinogens." I have never ever known someone living with HIV who said "Well, I figured I would just take a pill, every day, for the rest of my life, so catching HIV didn't matter." Really, which HIV prevention programs are saying "HIV isn't a big deal!"?

Finally, the best way to prevent HIV and still mitigate the problem of serophobia is most easily addressed by tailoring campaigns to include the consequences of HIV. While my disease is manageable, there are still serious daily consequences and fears I must face every single day. I take pills, I have side effects, I have to constantly worry about my medical coverage. All year long I have frequent doctor's visits where multiple vials of blood are drawn.

So no, Mr. Savage. HIV prevention campaigns are not flawed by telling the truth. They are perfected by telling the truth. Education cannot be founded on bias and fear campaigns. It is unacceptable to create unreasonable fear through misinformation! Since when is censorship of the facts a tool for HIV prevention?

It only served to underscore Daniel's point: HIV-positive celebrities who come out as poz could provide not only a face that validates the need for prevention (people are still catching it, guys!), but could educate the public as to the consequences of their serostatus. Happily, for people like myself who face stigma related to our disease, this would serve the piggybacked benefit of humanizing once more this virus which has become increasingly "other" with lack of visibility.

Will the Rock Hudson of the 21st century please stand up?

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