Queer Eye star Jonathan Van Ness recently came out as an “out-and-proud ‘member of the beautiful H.I.V.-positive community’” in an interview with The New York Times. Van Ness' coming out is a high-profile example highlighting the need for broader visibility and realistic representation of people living with HIV in media, especially as anti-LGBTQ groups have continued their decadeslong crusade of slandering people with HIV in order to stigmatize the LGBTQ community.
Van Ness, who identifies as non-binary, received widespread media coverage and was praised by his fellow Queer Eye co-stars and numerous other public figures. He joins a small group of celebrities and politicians who have spoken openly about living with HIV.
Since the beginning of the HIV pandemic in the 1980s, HIV in the U.S. has largely transformed from being a devastatingly fatal disease to a manageable chronic condition, and the public’s comfort around people living with HIV is at an all-time high. Current HIV treatment, known as antiretroviral therapy (ART), allows people with HIV to live long, healthy lives. A primary goal of ART is to lower a person’s viral load, the amount of HIV in a sample of blood, to an undetectable level. As Van Ness explained on NBC’s Today show, people living with HIV who have an undetectable viral load cannot transmit the virus to others: “undetectable equals untransmittable.”
Additionally, people who are HIV-negative but are more vulnerable to contracting HIV, like many members of the LGBTQ community, can take pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) as a daily pill to reduce their risk of contracting HIV from sex by about 99%. PrEP has been lauded as a major success in the fight to end HIV. The drug has been approved for use in adolescents and is recommended by mainstream medical, federal, and HIV organizations.
Anti-LGBTQ groups and media use high rates of HIV among LGBTQ people to malign and fearmonger about the community
Anti-LGBTQ groups have long used high rates of HIV among LGBTQ people to stigmatize and fearmonger about the community. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) , “gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men” accounted for 70% of new HIV diagnoses in 2017. In 2016, the CDC predicted that “if current HIV diagnoses rates persist, about 1 in 2 black men who have sex with men (MSM) and 1 in 4 Latino MSM in the United States will be diagnosed with HIV during their lifetime.”
There are several reasons that gay and bisexual men face disproportionate rates of HIV, including socioeconomic factors, homophobia and discrimination, and already high rates of HIV prevalence among the population. According to the CDC, “Socioeconomic factors such as limited access to quality health care, lower income and educational levels, and higher rates of unemployment and incarceration may place some gay and bisexual men at higher risk for HIV.” Moreover, homophobic attitudes decrease gay and bisexual men’s likelihood of accessing HIV prevention and treatment services.
Anti-LGBTQ groups like the American Family Association (AFA) have weaponized this data and these factors to stigmatize LGBTQ people’s sex lives, saying that gay men experience higher rates of HIV as a “penalty” because “homosexual acts … are ‘acts of grave depravity.’” On AFA’s right-wing evangelical radio network, American Family Radio, host Bryan Fischer has claimed that HIV comes from “frequent anonymous sex" that is “endemic in the homosexual community," and anti-LGBTQ activist Peter LaBarbera claimed that HIV is one of the “gay male diseases” because “homosexual behavior is a perversion like God says it is, it is deviant, it is not normal.” Fischer has also promoted the harmful and discredited practice of conversion therapy as a solution to the HIV epidemic, stating that gay men “need to pursue reparative, conversion therapy ... because [HIV is] gonna kill ya before you’re done.”
The Family Research Council (FRC), another extreme anti-LGBTQ group, has claimed that HIV is one of the “negative physical health consequences” that result “directly from homosexual acts.” FRC’s Peter Sprigg also claimed that “the position of social conservatives regarding homosexuality is based on the conviction that homosexual conduct is objectively harmful.”
Anti-LGBTQ groups have also fearmongered about the use of PrEP. FRC’s Cathy Ruse stoked fears about PrEP being “pushed on kids every year from ninth grade on,” saying it would “lead to risky behavior.” She has also promoted stereotypes about its use, claiming that PrEP is “a way for gay men to party out at night and not worry about infection in the morning.” AFA’s Fischer has complained about efforts to subsidize the drug in the United Kingdom to make it more available, suggesting that LGBTQ people should “consider a change in their behavior” rather than have taxpayers “subsidize their non-normative sexual conduct.”
Anti-LGBTQ groups also sometimes spread the lie that simply being LGBTQ will shorten a person’s lifespan. AFA’s Fischer has twisted research on the health outcomes of the LGBTQ community to suggest that “active participation in the homosexual lifestyle” is more dangerous than cigarettes, and MassResistance has claimed that “dangerous homosexual practices lead to shortened lifespan.” To claim that LGBTQ people’s lifespans are shortened simply due to their identity is a “gross misrepresentation” of the facts and is often misconstrued from a 1997 study that looked at mortality statistics from the late '80s and early '90s. The authors of that study have condemned anti-LGBTQ groups’ weaponization of their research, noting in 2001 that repeating the study at that time would find that “the life expectancy of gay and bisexual men would be greatly improved.”
Stigmatizing, anti-LGBTQ misinformation about HIV continues to reach large right-wing platforms. In June, a Fox News guest claimed that LGBTQ people “want to groom our children into their unhealthy lifestyle,” which includes “HIV and AIDS.”
The fight to end HIV is far from over despite improvements in HIV treatment, prevention, and media representation
Media representation for the estimated 1.1 million people living with HIV in the U.S. has seen drastic improvements in recent years. In 2018, the amount of TV characters living with HIV more than tripled, largely due to Netflix’s Tales of the City and FX’s groundbreaking show Pose. The two shows have given audiences a history lesson on HIV/AIDS and portrayed the complex impacts that the disease has had on different generations of LGBTQ people. As GLAAD has noted, “By showcasing these strong and nuanced characters in their entirety, the show encourages its audience to root for HIV-positive heroes whose stories are not solely tragic or painted as object lessons for viewers.”
Despite increasing awareness, new diagnoses of HIV in the U.S. have held steady since 2012, and there are still major barriers to prevention and treatment for people of color, people experiencing poverty, and injection drug users. As Celeste Watkins-Hayes, a professor of sociology and African-American studies at Northwestern University, noted in a New York Times op-ed about Van Ness:
Mr. Van Ness’s story reminds us that as the floor drops out from under us, we all need safety nets. He was fortunate to have a supportive family, financial resources to help him start anew and a professional network that recognized his talents and steered him to the right opportunities. Unfortunately, that kind of safety net isn’t available for everyone. In particular, people of color, women, poor people and those marginalized in many ways are much more likely to end up homeless, incarcerated, underserved by the health care system, or even dead than their white, male and wealthier counterparts.
Currently, the Center for HIV Law & Policy says that 29 states have draconian “HIV-specific criminal laws” that have been used in “more than 1,000” cases to increase charges against people for simply being HIV-positive. The Center has noted, “Media coverage that accompanies these cases often demonizes people with HIV and misrepresents the risk of transmission, helping to perpetuate stigma that results in denial of jobs and services and decreased willingness to get tested.”
Van Ness’ announcement that he is HIV-positive will certainly raise HIV awareness, could potentially increase HIV testing, and clearly demonstrates that people living with HIV experience extraordinary lives. In an environment where anti-LGBTQ groups and right-wing media perpetuate stigma around HIV to malign the LGBTQ community, it is so important for media to portray the experiences of people living with HIV.