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HIV/AIDS Blog Central

ABC's Brothers & Sisters Tackles HIV/AIDS and the Over-50 Crowd

By Kellee Terrell

May 19, 2010

With May sweeps coming to an end, it's network television tradition to throw in, out of nowhere, cliffhangers that draw you back to a new season in the fall. ABC's Emmy-winning Sunday night drama, Brothers & Sisters, was no exception to that rule. The season finale on May 16 pulled out all the stops with a multi-car pile-up; the death of Rob Lowe's character; and the revelation that Ron Rifkin's character, a 70-something gay man, tested HIV positive.

After Elton's Brent Hartinger reported on the show's May 16 season finale:

Saul is contacted by an old friend (and one-time romantic interest) via Facebook. When Kevin and Scotty casually point out from the friend's profile that he's been living with AIDS for many years, it leads Saul to admit that he's never actually been tested for the virus that causes AIDS.

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Saul admits that, decades earlier, he had had a series of random, unprotected sexual encounters that resulted because of widespread ignorance about the facts of HIV/AIDS and his own deeply internalized shame.

After much prompting by the Walker family, Saul finally agrees to get tested. At the testing center, he learns that it is possible to carry the virus for many years without showing symptoms of the disease (and that HIV-infection rates are currently rising among the elderly thanks to sexual enhancement drugs).

Later, after phoning in to get the results of his test (something not allowed in most testing centers), Saul tells the family that he is fine, that he has tested negative.

But the family is later involved in a car crash at the end of the episode -- an accident that ends up taking Robert McCallister's life. Saul is injured as well and is bleeding, but when Kevin approaches to help him, he says, "Don't touch me! You can't."

While the whole blood-phobia scene at the end irked me a bit, I do agree with Hartinger that it is good to see HIV/AIDS on the small screen. Over the years, network and cable television has tackled the subject on many shows, including St. Elsewhere, ER, Commander in Chief, Life Support and Queer as Folk, to name a few.

But as Hartinger notes, it's been five years since we have had an HIV-positive character regularly appearing in a primetime series. And as we approach AIDS's 30th anniversary, it's necessary to have more media representations to not only raise awareness, but to affirm that real people are in the United States living with this virus. HIV should not just be a concept employed as a cautionary tale; that does little to fight stigma or make HIV relevant to the general public. Hopefully, Brothers & Sisters will do more with this issue.

It 's also refreshing to see a storyline that deals with a fast-growing, yet highly ignored group of newly diagnosed people in this country -- men and women over the age of 50. Over the past 10 years, researchers have had their eye on this demographic. Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned public health officials and the public that the number of people over 50 living with and being newly diagnosed with HIV appears to be rising, but public health campaigns remain largely focused on the young.

Past studies have found that almost half of people absorb health-related facts they see on TV. Perhaps this show can have an impact on older viewers to talk to their doctors about their risk of contracting HIV, use condoms and get tested.

But before we give Brothers & Sisters major props, keep in mind that it's unknown where the writers are going to take this next season. Will they tackle real issues that people living with HIV face, such as disclosure, stigma and side effects from meds? Or will they fall flat like many other shows have in the past? What I do know for sure is that ABC succeeded in getting me to tune in this October to find out.

See Also
13 Moments in Black Celebrity Activism
History's Biggest HIV-Positive Celebrities
More About HIV on Television

Reader Comments:

Comment by: JD (Bakersfield CA) Mon., Mar. 14, 2011 at 9:35 am EDT
How do you address the incest between the half brother Justin and his half sister Rabecca
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Comment by: Robert Tue., Jun. 1, 2010 at 2:06 pm EDT
I think it is about time we see shows like this tackle issues like Gay Marriage,Cancer and HIV/AIDS.I am very curious to see how they continue with his diagnosis in the next season
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Comment by: edfu (NYC) Sun., May. 23, 2010 at 12:46 am EDT
To Frank:

I knew I was infected in 1982 or earlier, because I suffered such a severe mental breakdown in Sept. of 1982--when I, like a modern-day Cassandra, intuitively realized exactly what proved to be true about how HIV was spread, and foresaw all the horrors that were forthcoming--that I became celibate (and have remained so ever since).

I was very involved in the founding of Gay Men's Health Crisis in 1981-1982 and personally knew many of the earliest cases (this was still when the syndrome was known as GRID [Gay-Related Immuno-Deficiency]). I was editing the first GMHC newsletter in early 1982, and when I was told by the then-president that I couldn't "tell people how to have sex," I resigned in May 1982. (Larry Kramer was the only one supported my position.) To date, I have lost over 150 ex-lovers, friends, tricks, and acquaintances.

You are not the first person to question my story. The Aaron Diamond Research Center, however, was interested enough to examine me (and my blood) in great detail. Not everyone progresses to "full-blown" AIDS in the time- parameters recognized as most common.
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Comment by: Frank (New York City) Fri., May. 21, 2010 at 10:10 pm EDT
To Edfu : If you were never Tested how do you know you infected in or about 1982? was it that you never had "SEX'' again after that time ????????
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Comment by: John (Indiana) Fri., May. 21, 2010 at 12:56 pm EDT
I am a STRAIGHT man living with AIDS is Indiana. Why are men with AIDS on TV always gay? Doesnt that spead more ignorance? You dont know what it's like to be a straight man and have people assume you are gay because you have AIDS. The sterotype seams like it will never end. Oh, by the way, I got it from having sex with a positive WOMAN- no Sh*t! not drugs
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Comment by: edfu (NYC) Fri., May. 21, 2010 at 4:14 am EDT
I was infected in 1982 or earlier. I was never tested, because I had a phobia about knowing (90% of everyone I knew in NYC was sick and dying), and I was afraid I'd commit suicide if I knew I was HIV-positive. I had no medical "issues" whatsoever, except for my psychological problems, until 2002, when I presented with KS. At that time my viral was 16,000, and CD4's were 29. It turned out I was a longtime nonprogressor who finally progressed or, rather, a slow progressor. Saul's situation is not that uncommon.
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Comment by: Mike Hellman (Pittsburgh, PA) Thu., May. 20, 2010 at 7:25 pm EDT
As a member of the Pennsylvania HIV Prevention Planning Committee I was very disturbed by this portrayal and the stigma and fear it displayed not only to the general population but most especially to our young gay men at highest risk. NO results are given over the phone and a short counseling session (or even appearance of one) is critical for reducing stigma and fear of being outed either as gay (men having sex with men) or as HIV positive.

I sincerely hope that a flash back of appropriate action can be filmed to relieve fears and present hope for a better tomorrow.

Mike Hellman
Pennsylvania HIV Prevention CPG Member
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Comment by: Butch Thompson (Atlanta, GA) Thu., May. 20, 2010 at 4:04 pm EDT
I am so glad someone is writing more about HIV/AIDS in our aging population. Recently I was ask to speak to a group of 5 individuals living in an assisted care facility. All of them are HIV+ and could benefit from some Peer Guidance. I am now exploring how our agency might futher develop a program to reach out to this segment of the community.

Butch Thompson
AIDS Alliance for Faith and Health
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Comment by: frank (New York City) Thu., May. 20, 2010 at 3:10 pm EDT
I am a little Thrown back its been decades and Saul has never had issues ? Highly unlikely I would think someone who is positive that long is at great risk of getting An AIDS defining Disease . a lil far fetched if u ask me
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