Many social stigmas about HIV and AIDS began before people knew much about the virus.
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 about the virus.
Since the start of the AIDS 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 their roles 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 1960s, Rock Hudson was a leading Hollywood actor who defined manhood for many Americans.
However, he was also privately a man who was having sex with other men.
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 died 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 expanded, the general public had a misconception 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 encouraged public awareness and the beginning of more empathy.
In 2016, her son Prince Harry chose to be 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 the MSM community and injected drug use.
His admission of contracting the virus from practicing heterosexual sex without a condom or other barrier method 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 has been focused 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 and AIDS prevention.
They’ve worked with 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 and 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 transmitted, practicing sex with a condom or other barrier method, and HIV prevention.
In 2015, Charlie Sheen shared that he was HIV-positive. Sheen stated that he had only practiced sex without a condom or other barrier method 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.
Jonathan Van Ness
Jonathan Van Ness is the latest celebrity to share that he’s HIV-positive.
The “Queer Eye” star announced his status in preparation for the release of his memoir, “Over the Top,” on September 24. In an interview with The New York Times, Van Ness explained that he wrestled with the decision to talk about his status when the show came out because he dreaded the idea of being so vulnerable.
Ultimately, he decided to confront his fears and discuss not only his HIV status but also his history with addiction and being a sexual assault survivor.
Van Ness, who describes himself as healthy and a “member of the beautiful HIV-positive community,” felt HIV and his journey toward self-love were important to discuss. “I want people to realize you’re never too broken to be fixed,” he told The New York Times.
The willingness of such a public figure to talk openly about HIV may help others with HIV and AIDS to feel less alone. But the need for him to discuss it as a high-profile news story shows that, even in 2019, there’s still a long way to go before stigmas are removed.
‘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, an attorney named Michael Pierson who’s a member of the MSM community, learns that he has AIDS, he breaks the news to his family.
The film shows one man’s attempt to defuse pervasive stereotypes about HIV and AIDS while working through his relationship with his family’s rage, fear, and blame.
You can stream the movie on Netflix 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, at the time, hospitals didn’t have the right guidelines and protocols in place to prevent transmission 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 lawyer who’s a member of the MSM community and is 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 remains 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” wasn’t the first television character to contract 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 a baby who’s HIV-positive, gets married, and becomes a counselor for young people living 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 people who are HIV-positive. 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’re HIV-positive. Set in the 1980s, we’re shown glimpses of the stigma HIV carried at the time.
Tim’s partner, John, experiences the challenges of his health declining 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.
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (2018)
“Bohemian Rhapsody” is a biopic about the legendary rock band Queen and their lead singer Freddie Mercury, played by Rami Malek. The film tells the story of the band’s unique sound and their rise to fame.
It also includes Freddie’s decision to leave the band and go solo. When his solo career doesn’t go as planned, he reunites with Queen to perform at the benefit concert Live Aid. While facing his own recent AIDS diagnosis, Freddie still manages to put on one of the greatest performances in rock ‘n’ roll history with his band mates.
The film grossed over $900 million worldwide and won four Oscars.
You can watch “Bohemian Rhapsody” on Hulu 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. Roughly 6 in 10 Americans get their HIV and AIDS information from the media. That’s why the way television shows, films, and the news portray people living with HIV is important.
There’s 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.
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.
However, there are indications that despite the decrease in coverage, HIV and AIDS awareness and support remain important topics of discussion.
Despite recent challenging economic trends, more than 50 percent of Americans continue to support an increase in funding for HIV and AIDS.
Over recent decades, progress has been made in overcoming the stigma surrounding the virus and disease, due in part to these films and television shows.
However, many places around the world still believe older stigmas about the HIV and AIDS.
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 HIV and AIDS through valuable resources, including:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has HIV testing and diagnostic information
- HIV.gov, which has accurate and up-to-date information about the conditions and treatment options
- The Body Pro/Project Inform, which provides HIV and AIDS information and resources
- The Body Pro/Project Inform HIV Health Infoline (888.HIV.INFO or 888.448.4636), which is staffed by those who are affected by HIV
- Prevention Access Campaign and Undetectable = Untransmittable (U=U), which provides support and information for those living with HIV
You can also learn more about the background and history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic here.
With advances in treatment, primarily antiretroviral therapy, people living with HIV and AIDS are living longer and living a full life.