Charlie Sheen and the Rise of Poz Phobia

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.

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(We Wish You…) And A Sappy New Year

I know intellectually that the difference between December 31st of one year to January 1st of the next is so miniscule as to be useless. There really isn’t anything profound about the beginning of a new year. Years themselves are the creation of humans. Time is meaningless. I know this.

As much as I know this, I still believe in the magic of a New Year. I can’t help but to feel drawn to the illusion of the tabula rasa that ripping open a new calendar creates. I look for any excuse to make a wish, be it 11:11 or my birthday or a bit of rogue space junk streaking through our sky. Am I a hopeless sentimental sap? Yes. I have no shame.

Every New Year, I spend a lot of time, both before and after that shiny crystal ball drops from the top of One Times Square thinking introspectively about my life. I think about the things I have done that I do not particularly like. I think about the things I wish I could be doing. I’m a big fan and a big believer in New Year’s Resolutions. I usually don’t see them to their fruition, but sometimes I do. Much like gifts in the season we’ve just completed, it’s the thought that counts. Probably.

I think that writing down and sharing New Year’s Resolutions helps to keep me true to the path. I think I just have so much pride that I feel almost ashamed if I don’t accomplish something that I’ve told other people that I would do. The jury is still out on whether or not it actually makes me more likely to succeed, as shame is something I’m dealing with pretty much constantly. But anyway.

I think the biggest and most complicated resolution I’ve made for myself this year is the strengthening and solidifying of my gender. Over the past several years, I have experienced a near-crippling dysphoria and social anxiety about my gender and presentation. When I first came out as transgender in February of 2014, my knowledge of issues and rhetoric pertaining to gender was quite limited. I was only aware of one way that someone like me (read: AFAB) could be transgender. I knew that I was not a woman. I knew that the bodily discomfort I had experienced since my early days of puberty was gender dysphoria. I threw myself body and soul into the trans man experience. I changed the way I dressed. I shaved off all of my hair. I changed the name I used on a day to day basis. I changed my pronouns. I read all of the trans man blog posts, magazine articles, and memoirs as I could get my hands on. I used the men’s restroom. I bought and wore a binder every day, even as my back ached and my dysphoria persisted.

The deeper into the trans man community that I trekked, the more self-conscious I felt. The trans men in my life are among the most wonderful people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. The struggle that trans men face on a daily basis is one that goes far too often unnoticed, but it is not my struggle. I could not see myself in the narratives painted by trans men. I could see similar veins among our life stories, especially among those who shared with me multiple demographic markers, but the actual, visceral gender narrative was somehow different.

It would be quite an egregious understatement to say that I am a little more knowledgeable about gender issues these days. I began studying queer theory and gender theory with a vigor that can only be produced by academics trying to understand themselves. I am intimately familiar with the various theories about the nature and experience of gender. I could give lectures on the gender spectrum theories, the social constructionist theories, and the innate theories. I now know that the “truth” about gender, whatever that may be exactly is essentially irrelevant, as the lived experience of gender does not care about what I say of its origins.

That understanding of gender has made me very intellectually comfortable identifying as genderqueer. I like the ambiguity that the identity brings, especially in such a binary world that relies on hollow stereotypes to understand individuals. Ambiguity is the space in which I am comfortable. Intellectually.

As I mentioned before, intellectualism can only get us so far in any discussion of gender. Lived experience is something else entirely. This world, especially here in the West, refuses to accept or acknowledge the existence of genders beyond the male/female binary. As is the case with most presentation and exhibition of gender, there are no stereotypes that can be drawn from to ensure that one will be read by others as genderqueer.

I have struggled with this. Knowing that no stranger on the street will ever read me as genderqueer has caused me a great deal of anxiety about being in public. I am tired of being uncomfortable in the world around me. So what if there is no stereotypes for me to play with? That is not limiting. That is freeing. I am free to be whom and what I am.

I have resolved that in 2016, I will discover ways to be myself and make my gender known. I have resolved to finally settle on a name (contenders still in the running are: Ezri, Cameron, Tesla, and Rowan). I have resolved to use my chosen pronouns, ze/zir/zem regularly and without shame.

 

My second most important resolution is to write more. I have been given to opportunity to write as much as I can, to publish and not worry about my financial health. I have resolved to write as much as I can, aiming for at least 800 written words per day. I am hoping that I can, in the next twelve months, really find my voice. I have a voice, but I am not sure that this voice is my final form. Sometimes, especially on this blog, I feel that my writing style is just as awkward as I am in real life. Perhaps that’s endearing. I don’t know.

 

Another resolution involves my health. I know that I am a little bit overweight. I know that keeping extra pounds on me makes me look more feminine (I’ve got DDs and birthing hips, extra weight just accentuates it). Seeing as I have struggled with eating disorders at various times throughout my life, I know what the warning signs and trigger points are for me and my illness. I know that balance and moderation is the key to many things in this life. I have resolved to be more moderate and more careful about what I put into my body to nourish me and to try every day to practice yoga and do Pilates to build my own strength and hopefully lose a couple of pounds.

 

A fourth resolution I have made for myself is to become more social. The social anxiety I described earlier in this post is something that has been holding me back for quite some time. I hope to remove that rather unsavory element from my heart and to become more comfortable interacting with others. I know that more sociality will improve my mental health. I know that it will help me to become a more effective activist and advocate for the causes and communities I hold most dear.

 

My fifth and final resolution for 2016 is to engage and enrich my spiritual experience. I was born and raised Catholic. I was confirmed, taking the name of Genesius, in 2011, but I only did so to appease my devout mother and grandmother. I lost my faith in the Catholic dogma around age ten. Ever since then, I have been searching for a spiritual path that would lead me to some level of spiritual fulfilment. I have done research on many, many religions in my life. I have yet to find the one in which my own fulfilment lies. I am a witch, albeit a secular one right now, but I have been erratic in my practice. I have resolved to throw myself into study of various pagan faiths as well as Hinduism and the yogic teachings.

 

Like I mentioned before, I have no way of knowing whether or not I will be able to achieve all of these things, but I will try my damndest. I am not willing to settle for a life of mediocrity. What about all of you? Are you making New Year’s Resolutions? Why or why not? Have you ever completed a Resolution before? If you are working toward one (or many) I wish you the best of luck. Leave your thoughts, dissents, or words of encouragement in the comments below.