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Editorials and Commentary

Don't Hide the Truth About AIDS

January 15, 2003

"Much of the American press seemed to lurch back toward the early '80s two weeks ago, while reporting on the death of the famed celebrity and fashion photographer Herb Ritts.

"It was downright creepy to see a Reagan-era euphemism for AIDS pop up as the cause of Ritts' death in obituary after obituary: 'complications from pneumonia.' The New York Times, CNN, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press (in a story that ran in Newsday and many other papers) and other media organizations quoted Ritts' publicist, also identified as a friend, who used that term to describe what brought the openly gay photographer's life to an end at age 50.

"Soon enough it was revealed in the gay press (and since has only appeared in a few gossip columns) that Ritts had in fact been HIV-positive for years. His immune system had been sufficiently weakened; HIV infection had left him unable to fight off the pneumonia. In other words, Herb Ritts' death was an AIDS fatality. ...

"[This is] ... a tragic omission at a time when study after study shows unsafe sex and new infections continuing to rise steeply among younger generations of gay men. ...

"They are often too young to remember the AIDS deaths of celebrities, like Rock Hudson in 1985, which jolted America and the world. Most young gay men also have not watched their own friends die, as was the case of gay men of previous generations. This is true even as many of these young men become infected with HIV themselves and stay quiet about their illness, going on the drug 'cocktail,' chained for the rest of their lives to powerful pharmaceuticals that often have horrific side effects.

"Those drugs have thankfully saved many lives. Ironically, they've also driven AIDS back into the closet. The decline of AIDS awareness in the newsroom mirrors what has happened in society in general. No longer are many people with HIV walking around rail-thin and gaunt. ... AIDS becomes increasingly invisible, on the streets as well as in the media, even as HIV infection is an ever-present danger. ...

"That is why the story behind the death of Herb Ritts, a man who photographed Hollywood icons and shot music videos for youth idols such as Jennifer Lopez and 'NSync, would go a long way.

"That is, if anybody actually heard about it."

Signorile, a former editor of the Advocate, is author of "Queer in America" and "Life Outside."

Back to other CDC news for January 15, 2003

Previous Updates

Adapted from:
Newsday (New York)
01.13.03; Michelangelo Signorile

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This article was provided by CDC National Prevention Information Network. It is a part of the publication CDC HIV/Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update.