A lot of social stigmas about HIV and AIDS began before people knew much about the disease. According to the United Nations, over 50 percent of men and women report discriminating against people living with HIV. These stigmas develop from misinformation and misunderstanding of the disease.
Since the start of the epidemic, the media has played a role in shaping the public’s perception. By sharing stories, they help people understand HIV and AIDS through human eyes. Several celebrities also became spokespeople for HIV and AIDS. Their public support, along with portrayals in television and film, helped create more empathy. Learn what media moments helped audiences gain an empathetic and more understanding perspective.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Rock Hudson was a leading Hollywood actor who defined manhood for many Americans. However, he was also secretly homosexual. His public acknowledgement of having AIDS shocked audiences, but it also brought more attention to the disease. According to his publicist, Hudson hoped to “help the rest of humanity by acknowledging that he has the disease.”
Before Hudson passed away from an AIDS-related illness, he made a $250,000 donation to amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research. His actions didn’t end the stigma and fear, but more people, including the government, began to focus on funding for HIV and AIDS research.
When the HIV/AIDS epidemic exploded, there was misconception among the general public about how the disease was transmitted. This largely contributed to the stigma that still surrounds the disease today. In 1991, Princess Diana visited an HIV hospital, hoping to raise awareness and compassion for people with the condition. A photograph of her shaking a patient’s hand without gloves made front-page news. It evoked public awareness and the beginning of more empathy.
In 2016, her son Prince Harry got publicly tested for HIV to help raise awareness and encourage people to get tested.
In 1991, professional basketball player Magic Johnson announced that he had to retire due to an HIV diagnosis. During this time, HIV was only associated with homosexual sex and drug use. His admission of contracting the disease from unprotected heterosexual sex shocked many, including the African-American community. This also helped spread the message that “AIDS is not a remote disease that only strikes ‘someone else,’” said Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, the secretary of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Ever since then, Johnson’s focus has been on encouraging people to get tested and treated. He has actively worked to dispel myths about HIV and has helped raise public awareness and acceptance.
Famous hip-hop group Salt-N-Pepa has worked actively with youth outreach program Lifebeat, which seeks to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS prevention. They’ve had ties to the organization for over 20 years. In an interview with The Village Voice, Pepa notes that “it’s important to have an open dialogue because you don’t want someone else dictating that. […] It’s a lack of education and misinformation out there.”
Salt-N-Pepa generated a huge conversation about HIV/AIDS when they changed the lyrics of their famous song “Let’s Talk about Sex” to “Let’s Talk about AIDS.” It was one of the first mainstream songs to discuss how AIDS is contracted, safe sex, and HIV prevention.
Charlie Sheen is the latest celebrity who has come out as HIV positive. Sheen stated that he only had unprotected sex once or twice and that was all it took to contract the virus. Sheen’s announcement generated a wave of public attention.
Experimental research found that Sheen’s announcement was connected with a 265 percent increase in HIV news reports and 2.75 million more related searches in the United States. These included searches about HIV information, including symptoms, testing, and prevention. It’s unclear if these news searches lead to real awareness or action.
An ‘Early Frost’ (1985)
Aired four years after AIDS emerged, this Emmy-winning movie brought HIV into American living rooms. When the film’s protagonist, a homosexual attorney named Michael Pierson, learns that he has AIDS, he breaks the news to his family.
The film shows one man’s attempt to defuse pervasive stereotypes about the disease while working through his relationship with his family’s rage, fear, and blame.
If you have Netflix, you can rent the DVD here.
‘The Ryan White Story’ (1989)
Fifteen million viewers tuned in to watch the true story of Ryan White, a 13-year-old boy living with AIDS. White, who had hemophilia, contracted HIV from a blood transfusion. In the film, he confronts discrimination, panic, and ignorance as he fights for the right to continue to attend school.
“The Ryan White Story” showed audiences that HIV and AIDS could affect anyone. It also shed light on how hospitals at the time didn’t have the right precautions to prevent infection through transfusion.
You can stream “The Ryan White Story” on Amazon.com here.
‘Something to Live For: The Alison Gertz Story’ (1992)
Alison Gertz was a 16-year-old heterosexual female who contracted HIV after a one-night stand. Her story drew international attention, and the film retelling featured Molly Ringwald. The film salutes her bravery as she manages her fear of mortality and channels her energy into helping others. In the 24 hours after the film aired, the federal AIDS hotline received a record 189,251 calls.
In real life, Gertz also became an outspoken activist, sharing her story with everyone from middle school students to the New York Times.
This movie isn’t available for online streaming, but you can buy it online from Barnes and Noble here.
“Philadelphia” tells the tale of Andrew Beckett, a young homosexual lawyer fired from a high-powered firm. Beckett refuses to go quietly. He files suit for wrongful termination.
As he fights the hatred, fear, and loathing surrounding AIDS, Beckett makes a passionate case for the rights of people with AIDS to live, love, and work freely as equals in the eyes of the law. Even after the credits roll, Beckett’s determination, strength, and humanity sticks with the audience.
As Roger Ebert stated in a 1994 review, “And for moviegoers with an antipathy to AIDS but an enthusiasm for stars like Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, it may help to broaden understanding of the disease… it uses chemistry of popular stars in a reliable genre to sidestep what looks like controversy.”
Jeanie Boulet of “ER” was not the first television character to get HIV. However, she was one of the first to contract the disease and live.
With treatment, the fiery physician assistant doesn’t just survive, she thrives. Boulet keeps her job at the hospital, adopts an HIV-positive baby, gets married, and becomes a counselor for young people with HIV.
Find “ER” episodes for purchase on Amazon.com here.
Based on Puccini’s “La Bohème,” the musical “Rent” was adapted as a 2005 feature film. The plot involves an eclectic group of friends in New York City’s East Village. HIV and AIDS are inextricably interwoven into the plot, as characters attend life support meetings and ponder their mortality.
Even during the spirited acts, the characters’ beepers ring to remind them to take their AZT, a drug used to delay the development of AIDS in HIV-positive people. This life-affirming film celebrates the characters’ lives and loves, even in the face of death.
You can watch “Rent” on Amazon.com here.
‘Holding the Man’ (2015)
Based on Tim Conigrave’s best-selling autobiography, “Holding the Man” tells the story of Tim’s great love for his partner of 15 years, including their ups and downs. Once living together, they both learn that they are HIV positive. Set in the 1980s, we are shown glimpses of the stigma HIV carried at the time.
Tim’s partner, John, deteriorates and dies from an AIDS-related illness in the movie. Tim wrote his memoir as he was dying from the disease in 1994.
“Holding the Man” can be rented or purchased from Amazon here.
Since the emergence of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, research has shown that media coverage has reduced the stigma of the condition and cleared up some misinformation. Six in ten Americans get their HIV/AIDS information from the media. That’s why it’s important how television shows, films, and the news portray people living with HIV.
There is still a stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS in many places. For example, 45 percent of Americans say they’d be uncomfortable having someone with HIV prepare their food. Fortunately, there are signs that this stigma is diminishing. In 1987, 43 percent of Americans believed that AIDS was a punishment from God. In 1992, 36 percent held this belief. Today, 81 percent of Americans disagree with this statement.
While reducing the stigma of HIV is only a good thing, information fatigue about the virus can result in less coverage. Prior to Charlie Sheen’s announcement, coverage about the virus had decreased significantly. If coverage continues to decrease, public awareness can fall, too.
Over recent decades, progress has been made in overcoming the stigma surrounding the disease, due in part to these films and television shows. However, many places around the world still believe older stigmas about the condition.
Having sufficient resources available to provide information to both the public and to those affected by the conditions can help. You can learn more about this condition through valuable resources including:
- the CDC’s list of resources for those with HIV, which has testing and diagnostic information
- AIDS.gov, which has accurate and up-to-date information about the conditions and treatment options
- Project Inform, which provides HIV and AIDS information and resources
- Project Inform’s HIV Health Infoline (800-822-7422), which is staffed by those who are affected by HIV
You can also learn more about the background and history of HIV/AIDS epidemic here.