It seems the 1980s are back, and I don’t mean in a fun, big hair and heavy metal kind of way. I mean in a vitriolic, public outing, shame on you sort of way. After a “shocking” expose published by the infamous grocery store checkout line tabloid The National Enquirer recently made headlines, Charlie Sheen—the actor known best for his role in Two and a Half Men as well as his very public, drug-induced meltdown involving tiger blood and ‘winning’—was forced to come out about his HIV status. After the Enquirer’s article, Sheen was terrorized by everyone, constantly asked deeply personal, medical questions by paparazzi. He came out about his status on an exclusive interview with NBC’s TODAY Show.
As someone who works often in the HIV space, I know first-hand how much ignorance, misinformation, and downright stupidity that exists around HIV. I have not seen it this bad in my entire tenure as a queer advocate and activist.
So I, your friendly neighborhood queer, am here to clear the air and explain a little bit about HIV and why Charlie Sheen, as the Caitlyn Jenner of the poz community, should be critiqued and supported, but never ever mocked or ridiculed for his status. A lot of what I’ll be saying, you’ve probably heard before—from me, if you’re a longtime reader. A lot of what I’ll be saying bears repeating until more people understand.
Charlie Sheen is probably the worst poster boy for an HIV-positive person. He is not exactly what anyone would call a perfect victim. That is okay. As a matter of fact, that he does not fit the stereotype is a good thing. He, just by being who and what he is for better or worse, stands as a foil to the traditional model of the HIV-positive person, and thereby begins to dismantle it in the minds of those who are paying attention.
You may be wondering which stereotypes I’m referring to. There are a couple different ones. Each distinct social group has a different stereotype of who is and who is not HIV-positive. To the vast majority of the straight world, only gay men can have HIV. Even many queer people ascribe to that stereotype. This stereotype is wrong, manufactured by the government when they originally referred to HIV as GRID (gay-related immunodeficiency, which was considered a cancer.) It is harmful. There are thousands of young women in this country who don’t know their status because they think they can’t get HIV. Young men, young women, children, everyone dies of HIV’s effects. Africa is ravaged with the disease.
Since the National Enquirer broke the story about Sheen’s sero-status, the grocery store tabloids have gone hog wild trying to “break” the “truth” about how he could have seroconverted. It’s 2015, HIV has been part of our collective consciousness for nearly forty years, and people still have no idea how the disease works. I’ve seen tabloids suggest that Sheen had an affair with a man, with “transsexuals,” that he’d done too many drugs and seroconverted due to a dirty syringe. No one wants to know anything about HIV when it doesn’t affect one’s own life and can’t be spoken of in the dark, dank comment sections of the internet. As an educator, this crawling-out-of-the-woodwork is extremely frustrating.
If you’ve got your fingers poised over your keyboards ready to scream about all the pseudoscience you think you know about HIV to try to scream me down, stop while you’re ahead.
Our knowledge and understanding of HIV has matured over the past forty years. There is not, and cannot be, room for medical and academic discourse for the bigoted, biased information that has been repeated on the internet. That there are those who still see HIV as a “gay disease” is, at best, morally troubling. It is as worst a willful rejection of fact to maintain an incorrect worldview. The demographic with the most new HIV cases in modernity are not gay men. They are not transgender women. They are heterosexual, cisgender women. The story that’s been told a million times about how a woman can’t get HIV is wrong. Women in sub-Saharan Africa have seroconverted with the highest incidence of all demographics on Earth.
Does gay sex transmit the virus? Yes, it can if unsafe sex is practiced. Do all gay men have HIV? Absolutely not. Does all drug use transmit the virus? No Only drug use in which blood could be present. I cannot and will not speculate as to how Mr. Sheen seroconverted. It’s none of my business. It’s none of anybody’s business. If he identifies as straight, we should, of course, take him at his word. After all, in the twenty-first century, there are worse things to be than a cis, white, rich gay man. For an increasingly irrelevant Hollywood fixture, it would probably help his career if he came out as gay. Conversely, if the rumor is true that he slept with a trans woman, his heterosexuality is all but proven. Trans women are women, regardless what the comment sections and TERFs of the world say. The further into this line of thought we go, the more intrusive it becomes. If we would not want our personal, romantic, sexual, or medical information in the papers, we should not, by our own demands, put anyone else’s there.
Another highly contested side of Charlie Sheen’s sero-status outing has been largely perpetrated by his past partners, wives, and girlfriends. Many have come out, very angry for the cameras to claim that he never told them that he was HIV-positive. This controversy throws into the spotlight an issue that has been roiling in the activist community for years: disclosure.
The disclosure issue has been raging since the time that the current treatment cocktail was perfected. Reeling from the stigma of HIV/AIDS, newly treated and no longer infectious with an undetectable viral load, many wanted the freedom of not being associated with HIV—to be an individual before a disease. Unfortunately, many, no matter how safe they are, are unable to escape from the scarlet letter of their sero-status due to HIV-criminalization laws.
Many of these laws are, as you would expect, products of a bygone era, informed by a lack of understanding and blinding fear. They remain law because lawmakers are too fearful and political to pass an already existing bill that would do just that. The REPEAL Act, a bill that has been flailing in Congress for years. This bill would repeal many laws that make the act of having HIV a crime, save for the malicious and intentional transmission of the disease.
This may seem very theoretical, but HIV criminalization laws have very real, very concrete consequences for those who get hit with them. The primary element of these laws are to do with non-disclosure. Perhaps the most famous example of these laws in action in recent years is that of Michael Johnson, known online as Tiger Mandingo. He operated profiles on a variety of hookup apps. He was receiving treatment for his HIV. He did not tell his partners about his sero-status. He did not transmit the virus to anyone else. He was arrested by University Police at his school in St. Louis, Missouri. His trial was a very public spectacle. He was ultimately sentenced to thirty and a half years in prison. HIV-criminalization laws played a very large part in the man’s ruining. He had not, after all, harmed anyone. As a black man, systemic racism undoubtedly played a very large part in his conviction, but that discussion is for another post.
I struggle with my own position on the disclosure debate. Just as it is wholly possible and immutably human to forget safety during the heat of a sexual moment, so too would it be for disclosure. I believe that, by and large, one should be open about his/her/their sero-status at some point during a sexual encounter or relationship. I do see all sides of the argument, of course. I believe that stigmatizing those who are HIV+ and refusing their sexual companionship on only the grounds of their status is wrong, especially when they have undetectable viral loads. I also understand that we cannot take everyone at their word. I also recognize that finding out that a partner who didn’t disclose was poz after the fact can be psychologically traumatic.
Charlie Sheen’s recent interview with Dr. Oz has also brought up another very fracturing debate within the HIV space, albeit on a much more positive note. HIV drugs are not particularly fun. They do not give one euphoria by any stretch of the imagination. They often are accompanied by crippling side effects that directly interfere with one’s quality of life. Sheen, who lives in Malibu or some such ‘burb of LA, was faced with pressure by other members of the HIV+ community to try alternative medicine. They are all the rage among the very wealthy. Sheen tried them, apparently, as a way to escape the side effects. He had been undetectable for years before trying them. He is detectable now. He promised Dr. Oz he would return to the tried-and-true cocktail of drugs that kept him well. This is a very positive message to send to the HIV+ community, especially to the young men and women who may be facing similar pressure to forego proven medical interventions.
Charlie Sheen has many problems. He is in no way a “perfect victim.” He is a wild child (although he recently revealed that he has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, so I may be out of line with my previous statement). He has engaged in a lot of misogyny, homophobia, racism, and transphobia over his long career and in his humor. It is probably not something to be particularly proud of to aspire to be Charlie Sheen. He does not identify as queer. He has not, as far as a cursory Google search would reveal, done anything particularly spectacular in the way of being an LGBT ally. However, he is poz. He is part of our community, whether he identifies as such or not. We must support him. We must shut down the assholes in our lives who crack jokes about how there must be a Charlie Sheen gay sex tape. We must shut down the uninformed people we encounter who do not understand the complexities of HIV. We must not allow the climate of our society to become toxic for those with HIV who are not famous and who are struggling. We must show our support publicly for Sheen so that we may make a difference in the life of a young poz person who needs someone to understand.