The HIV Reveal

curtain-hotblack-morguefileI’ve been hearing for over a week now about a male American celebrity who has HIV but has kept the news private. Fair enough- it’s his diagnosis, his health terrain to navigate. Yesterday articles were being published saying Charlie Sheen was set to reveal (pretty bold if it wasn’t true); this morning he confirmed it.

Really, it’s none of our business, but because he’s famous, the media is paying attention. Sheen says he’s going public because he’s been paying hard cash- “into the millions” – to keep people quiet. What a statement that is about stigma.

HIV is the STI that trumps them all, even though herpes is also a lifelong infection and HPV is spread more easily. All STIs point out that we’re sexual, a complicated reckoning for many people. But HIV carries a history of shame more extreme than others. The media whipped up fearing by calling it The Gay Plague before it became clear that anyone could get HIV. Treatment can control HIV’s progress; but stigma can still be a challenge.

When I first started working in HIV education in the 90’s (yup, way back), the women I supported were terrified to tell anyone they had HIV. They had been rejected, deserted, and shamed by family, friends, and even doctors. “Nice girls” didn’t get HIV. But they did. I have met some really wonderful people who are artists, teachers, aunties, lawyers, moms, grandmas … and also happen to have HIV.

We have come a long way in HIV treatment; it’s amazing these days. If a person is diagnosed now and gets on treatment, they could live pretty much as long as an uninfected friend. If they take HIV medication as directed, it keeps the amount of HIV virus in the system very low- this is what Sheen’s doctor meant when he said the virus is suppressed. It doesn’t mean he’s cured, but it does mean that his immune system is as healthy as can be and it’s  highly unlikely he will transmit HIV during sex. Viral levels can fluctuate, so  condoms are still recommended, but a  study of long term monogamous couples is showing some hopeful results.

For decades treatment has helped women have healthy babies; those babies are having their own children now. Treatments aren’t as difficult to endure physically as they once were; most newly diagnosed people who work can continue to do so, and some long term survivors have been able to get back work although re-entering the job market has its own set of challenges.

But stigma is still there, unfortunately. All of us working in the HIV community fight against it, but it’s harder at some times than others. The money Charlie Sheen has paid and the stories written about him in the last few weeks prove it. Last week Owen Jones wrote about the chase:Such tabloid witch-hunting helps to make people living with HIV feel isolated, increasing depression and anxiety. But it also means fewer people choose to be tested.”

That is a risk. I hope that if you think you need a test, you get it. And if you want support or questions answered before doing so, there are caring people at HIV organizations all over the country to provide it (here’s BC’s list).  I work at Positive Women’s Network, where there are amazing women who tell their stories to fight stigma. They want to show that life with HIV is a life that was unexpected, but rolling along.


Janet   |  @janet_madsen


Photo:  Hotblack, MorgueFile