“Would you ever sleep with someone living with HIV?”
“Sure. Sex with someone with HIV who’s virally suppressed is actually better than dating someone who’s sleeping around and doesn’t know their status, right?”
For a second, I was stunned by Trevor’s response to my question. In recent months, I’ve started taking an informal poll of gay male friends to ask about their understanding of viral suppression and comfort level dating and having sex with someone HIV-posiitve. I’ve been disappointed by many of the responses I’ve received. Most have, in an apologetic way, shared that they would be less likely to date someone who is HIV-positive while others have outright said they wouldn’t date an HIV+ person.
Trevor’s answer was the first time someone responded with such ease and knowledge about the topic. I asked him how he knew about viral suppression.
“I watch ‘How to Get Away With Murder’ religiously,” he responded. “One of the characters has HIV, and in conversations with his boyfriend and other hookups, has discussed his status and how they can still have safer sex. Do you watch the show?”
I’m obsessed with Connor and Oliver, one of HTGAWM’s best turbulent couples. After Oliver’s diagnosis, Connor started PrEP and though they have their drama, HIV hasn’t been a barrier to intimacy or a source of conflict. Not all characters are quite as knowledgeable about the current state of HIV prevention, though. This season, Oliver was rejected by a potential love interest, even though Oliver let him know he is virally suppressed.
Arguably, 2016 was the best year for HIV visibility in pop culture and on television yet. Early depictions of HIV and AIDS in pop culture at the start of the epidemic often failed to portray the true complexity of HIV and those communities most impacted. We saw stories of “hemophiliac children infected through blood transfusions” and middle-class, white gay men whose sex and romantic life was often marginalized, if depicted on screen at all. We’ve come a long way since 1993 when Tom Hanks won the Oscar for portraying Andrew Beckett in Philadelphia, a groundbreaking film and performance of an openly gay man living with HIV that did not include a single scene of intimacy or romance between Beckett and his male partner.
Yet even the most daring shows of 2016 need to push further. The same week I talked with Trevor, I binge-watched the third season of “Transparent.” The show tells the story of the Pfefferman family and their response to their father’s (Jeffrey Tambor) transition from Mort to Maura (Warning: slight spoilers ahead.)
This season, Maura’s son, Josh, finds himself attracted to Shea, a yoga instructor and mentor of sorts to Maura. Their flirtation is acted upon when they start making out in the sixth episode, yet the brakes are slammed on when Shea discloses to Josh that she’s HIV-positive. While she shares that she’s virally suppressed and reminds Josh that condoms and PrEP can prevent him from contracting HIV, it’s clear that Josh is trying to find a way out. When Shea starts to get upset, Josh responds that he’s been “pretty good about all this” and reminds her that’s paying for the road trip they are on together.
Shea screams at him, “I’m not your (expletive) adventure. I’m a person.”
It’s refreshing to watch Shea grow and come into her own as a character this year, however brief that growth moment may be. A minor character in the first two seasons, her most memorable moment came when she taught Maura the proper way to say “YAS QUEEN!” Shea’s character is all the more important because, though we have limited data on HIV rates in the trans community, we know transgender women in the United States experience a high prevalence of HIV. Glimpsing the life of a trans person living with HIV – one also portrayed by a trans actor – is a significantly positive step.
My hope for 2017 is that pop culture will keep challenging audiences with portrayals of people living with HIV. We need new characters on TV to challenge our notion of what it means to live with HIV and to reflect the diversity of our movement. As humans, we find ourselves drawn to art and pop culture that reflects aspects of our own lives. These reflections provide us with a sense of relevancy and validation. One of the most consistent things I hear from our activists living in rural parts of North Carolina is how isolating living with HIV can be. Characters that share our experiences in pop culture help break down that loneliness.
But these depictions and portrayals do more than help mitigate the loneliness that marginalized communities experience. These portrayals also help those with limited exposure understand and relate to people they otherwise may not encounter. President Obama said as much when he awarded the groundbreaking Ellen DeGeneres the Presidential Medal of Freedom last November. Her visibility as an warm and kind out-lesbian challenged “our own assumptions … and push(ed) our country in the direction of justice.”
The same is true for the stories of people and characters living with HIV. Pop culture provides a pathway to acceptance of our own identities and can break down the stigma we carry toward others not like us. Let’s hope Hollywood and pop culture will not only keep HIV visibility prominent in 2017, but embrace it.