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Oprah Misses the Mark on HIV/AIDS ... Again

By Kellee Terrell

October 13, 2010

Oprah Winfrey devoted the Oct. 7 episode of her talk show to HIV/AIDS. But instead of it being about anything substantial, eye-opening or educational, Oprah decided to focus on issues that distort the epidemic.

"Why She Sued Her Husband for $12 Million and Won" opened with beautiful, educated Bridget, who had met and married the love of her life. It was a fairy tale -- until the day, 10 years ago, that she found out she was HIV positive. Later, she learned her husband was HIV positive, too. And that he had slept with men without using condoms. And that he was the one who had given her HIV. She later sued her husband for $12 million and won.

Yes, it's the "woman as innocent victim duped by the sinister, gay brother on the down low" narrative again.

To be clear, I don't want to belittle or devalue Bridget's experiences, because what happened to her is horrible. Putting your trust (and your health) in the hands of a spouse, only to be lied to and later diagnosed with HIV, is devastating. And I admit that it's hard to create and implement condom negotiation strategies geared for married women and women who believe they are in monogamous relationships.

But why does the down low continue to dominate most media stories about HIV in America, when study after study shows that closeted gay men having unprotected sex with both men and women is not fueling the epidemic?

Of course, Oprah didn't have any expert to talk about that. Nor was there an expert to jump to Bridget's defense when gasps of horror from the audience greeted her announcement that she had remarried and was pregnant -- despite her accurate assessment that, because she was on antiretroviral treatment, the risk of her baby being born with HIV was extremely low. Given the immense stigma surrounding a positive woman's right to have children, a doctor's insight would have been nice.

And just when you thought the show couldn't get any worse, J.L. King, the godfather of the down low, came out -- in every sense of the term. King -- whose 2004 book On the Down Low catapulted this phenomenon into American pop culture -- finally admitted that he identifies as a gay man. Yet he still warns heterosexual women that not knowing their man's sexual orientation can kill them. (Note to King: The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community might not accept you if you keep falsely blaming it for HIV.)

The episode's only saving grace was when Bridget became pissed off at Oprah's use of Magic Johnson as an example of how everyone living with HIV can be healthy and life with HIV can be easy. Bridget jumped in and said, "Let me stop you here. Magic Johnson does not have the same life that an average person [with] the disease. ... Magic Johnson can buy any doctor, any medication in the world. He has people who cook for him. He has people who clean for him. ... people can live with it, but it's not simple like everybody says." (The video was removed from YouTube after Oprah's production company sent a copyright warning.)

This moment was powerful -- not just because Oprah's guests rarely ever correct her, but also because for too long Magic has been the poster child of this epidemic, when in fact his access, power and privilege are a rarity among those living with HIV/AIDS.

To be fair, there are times when Oprah has gotten HIV somewhat right. Her 1987 episode about AIDS in a small West Virginia town opened the country's eyes to the ignorance around this disease and the need for compassion. And in a 2006 episode, an intimate roundtable with women living with HIV in America was not only endearing, it also humanized the epidemic.

But those shows are few and far between. Shows such as those covering Bridget's story and last year's HIV criminalization fiasco (read the show recap, or an open response letter from Jack Mackenroth of Project Runway fame) do more harm than good when it comes to trying to educate the public about HIV.

That is frustrating, because there are so many different entry points from which Oprah could talk about HIV responsibly. In 2010 alone, the first-ever National HIV/AIDS Strategy was implemented; the HIV travel ban was lifted in the U.S.; there was a resurgence of people on AIDS Drug Assistance Program waiting lists; the HIV/AIDS documentary The Other City debuted; and the XVIII International AIDS Conference generated plenty of important news, such as the development of a potentially effective microbicide.

Why not report on some of that? Or better yet, why not show what it's like to really live with HIV by letting people living with the disease tell their own stories? Show them raising their families; addressing stigma; dealing with the difficulties of treatment adherence, side effects and drug resistance; overcoming addiction; battling housing and economic issues; dealing with dating, sex and love; and navigating homophobia, racism and gender issues. You know, all that good stuff.

Given that this is the last season of The Oprah Winfrey Show -- and given her power, access and influence -- I think Ms. Winfrey owes America that much.

Would you like to tell Oprah and her producers what living with HIV is really like? Or want to tell them what you thought about this episode? Sound off on her show's official Web site.

Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for and

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Copyright © 2010 The HealthCentral Network, Inc. All rights reserved.

See Also
When You Know Better, You Do Better, Part 1
13 Moments in Black Celebrity Activism
History's Biggest HIV-Positive Celebrities
More About HIV on Television

Reader Comments:

Comment by: Luther Vandross Mon., Dec. 20, 2010 at 3:49 pm UTC
Oprah is a conservative plagiarist- that uses liberals for an extra dollar and spiritual kick. If you go to her websites submit/contact page it clearly states they alter and change information while not paying. Gay people and blacks should junk her crap and get over her charity imaging-its nothing but a ploy. And to add wasn't the suit won in California-the same state which doesn't allow gay marriages. No doubt the judge found the gay or bi black man morally corrupt...should we discuss how many "blacks" voted against gay marriage there? Oprah is the kinder gentler "black" version of Dr.Laura.
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Comment by: Mag (Los Angeles) Fri., Dec. 10, 2010 at 6:59 am UTC
Kay, Yes it is true that HIV is controllable through medication and general health, etc. But we have a huge problem in this country and especially in Africa with accessibility to these meds. With cuts in ADAP and foreign policy in Africa screwing the public, etc people can't afford the medicines they need to be healthy. Also, we have an entire generation of younger people (I speak as a 20-something year old) who believe that AIDS is CURABLE and "not a big deal." It is still a big deal. Education is still needed and we also need funding to help people get life saving medicines.

My view on Oprah is this: she is an entertainer. period. she does have a responsibility to the public but first and foremost she is an entertainer.
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Comment by: Kay (NY, NY) Wed., Nov. 24, 2010 at 1:56 am UTC
"that distort the epidemic"....What a laugh. HIV is now a controllable long term illness. That is O should have focused on. What more education do we need? Do we need to hear about condom use in marriage? The piece was not aabout educating people about the disease itself.
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Comment by: john (california) Thu., Oct. 21, 2010 at 8:01 am UTC
so by that show's logic...were they implying that the poster child for hiv, magic johnson, was on the "down low" when he got his disease?

of course not....but of course they neglected that angle, haven't they?

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Comment by: Sherri Lewis (Hollywood, CA) Mon., Oct. 18, 2010 at 5:16 pm UTC
I hear you loud and clear Kellee and couldn't agree with you more. I met Bridget when she was newly diagnosed and she walked into the the women's HIV group I was working as a counselor in at the time. I never saw her after that. People that knew her were jut so excited that she was on Oprah I checked out Oprah's show, reluctantly since Oprah's track recored on the subject of HIV/AIDS is always so disappointing and this show was no different except that I got more angry and frightened, the underlying cause of my angry response to this show, since there is still no progress on how the general public views AIDS in society and how the most powerful woman in media is still so poorly versed on this topic. For a woman who has a school for women in Africa, she really should have more education, up to date, not so historical ie: hysterical about HIV. These stereotypes hurt everyone! Time to have facts not fiction based on emotional backstepping into the 80's and 90's. PLEASE! Thank you for for your blog on this show. I'm with you Kellee!
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Comment by: dave (nj) Sun., Oct. 17, 2010 at 11:24 pm UTC
If the transmission of HIV from men on the down low or otherwise bisexual men to women, then how is this being transmitted from man to women? Why don't we tell the truth. Oprah has done many. many wonderful things, but she is a media mogul and as such, she will sensationalize anything she can. That is he claim to fame. I agree that issues dealing with HIV in the advent of HAART need to be discussed. Examples include being kicked off SSD when "someone" deems you able to work. Or the insensitive care providers that don't care to address the mant side effects associated with HAART. How about that!
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Comment by: T.rex (Los Angeles) Sun., Oct. 17, 2010 at 9:18 pm UTC
Umm, i'm not sure i buy into the theory that Magic is doing well because he doesn't cook his own food. Cooking, really ain't that hard or stressful.
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Comment by: michael (l.a. , CA) Fri., Oct. 15, 2010 at 5:15 am UTC
i was watching some of the vids on the oprah site after i read the article. i watched the two and a half minute of the hiv expert spouting of some random stats that women are the fastest growing group getting the disease (something to that effect)...and i just snickered cause the first thing that popped in my head opposed to men? doesn't that make it just two groups? a nonsensical stat.

anyways.....i think the underlying problem for the most part was missed. it's not just the stigma of having hiv that is the problem, but one of the underlying problems of men being "down low", and become reckless by contracting hiv is primarily due to the stigma of being "bi" or "gay". it is this society's current scarlet letter. it is predominantly looked down upon in our society to have gay relations. so, to "some" extent, people develop secret lives...married or otherwise.

perhaps educating her audience with tolerance, that it's not a sin to have hiv, and it's not a sin to be gay, bi, straight, purple, blue, man, or woman.

or perhaps focus on the hardships, financial, emotional, or otherwise......issues of insurance, how the the patents on new medications keeps the cost of these cocktail drugs at a premium of 1500-200 dollars a month..... A MONTH! the lady was right to get angry when magic johnson was brought up...a huge majority of hiv patients cannot afford the cocktails that magic johnson could. and once the flow of money wanes, especially in this economy, what is an hiv patient to do? just give up and die? not only die, but a painful and agonizing death from opportunistic infections that we can only guess might visit first.

perhaps her influence should focus on something like, there shouldn't be an industry that should profit from suffering.....lack of common sense has taken hold of this country.
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Comment by: Sa`ada (Cairo-Egypt) Thu., Oct. 14, 2010 at 10:01 pm UTC
I read your article and couldn`t understand where did Oprah go wrong,in fact this part of your article was disturbing to me :"The episode's only saving grace was when Bridget became pissed off at Oprah's use of Magic Johnson as an example of how everyone living with HIV can be healthy",was it the woman`s disapproval of the possibility of living healthy with HIV that was the saving grace part?? And what has the ability to "buy any doctor" or "any medication" in the world has to do with Johnson`s ability to live healthy with his HIV? Are there some other more effective and more expensive drugs that are accessed by rich people only??
Please explain this to me because I couldn`t understand!
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Comment by: dwayne (Brandon, FL) Thu., Oct. 14, 2010 at 6:33 pm UTC
i hope everyone sends her a msg.
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Comment by: Linda A (PEI, Canada) Thu., Oct. 14, 2010 at 4:31 pm UTC
Oprah covered One story about One woman and how she Was duped - the consequences of which may very well cost her her life.
Oprahs' show was Not about AIDS specifically as it was this particular story.
Perhaps when enough people are aware of the destruction our society causes by making it anything but ok to be gay - we will have fewer stories like this.
In the meantime - It is a story and that is what Opray does - she shares "stories" .. and really owes us nothing. I say Kudo's to her for hitting a topic that is another that is politically incorrect and therefore - for the mostpart - hidden.
Isn't it time was STOPPED hiding things?

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Comment by: Tripp Mills (Los Angeles, CA) Thu., Oct. 14, 2010 at 3:45 pm UTC
Kellee -Thanks for your article - I submitted my comments to Oprah. And just for the record I did the same thing years ago in regards to the James Frey Controvery over his book "A Million Little Pieces" which Oprah supported on her book club. My email began with "I disagree with Oprah and here's why". 2 days later her people called me to ask my why I disagree with her. I don't think she likes people disagreeing with her. So be assured her "people" read these emails and she does respond. I was invited to be an audience member on the show where she publicly flogged James Frey but I declined to be a witness to his execution- but if she is willing to listen to tales of hope and debunk some myths about people like myself living with HIV, then I will be happy to fly to Chicago and have a seat in her studio. I would even sit on a panel. Thanks.
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Comment by: Peter (Canada) Thu., Oct. 14, 2010 at 3:36 pm UTC
I think you're a bit harsh on Oprah. There are so many ways of approaching the discussion of HIV/AIDS today. Oprah chose this topic which is fine. If you want input to how AIDS/HIV should be addressed on these talk shows, may I suggest a more aggressive approach at the front end of the production.
I like the part of the lady putting Magic Johnson into perspective. I thought he rode into the sunset long time ago - I don't look to him as any role model today. He had his 15 minutes of fame being an HIV+ athlete long time ago.
Your comment about "woman as innocent victim duped by the sinister gay down-low brother" narrative is presumptuous. What if that gay brother is obviously bisexual.
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Comment by: brian (chicago) Thu., Oct. 14, 2010 at 3:07 pm UTC
I saw that episode.I was thrilled when oprah was corrected and she admited her ignorance. I am on public assistance ADAP and was on disability until it was deemed i was healthy and could work full i lost my medicare. Interesting because i have an AIDS diagnosis...but i guess medicare thinks i can work until i get sick and have to qualify again. this is a mean ,nasty,ugly and unfair disease.
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Comment by: Rain (Louisville) Thu., Oct. 14, 2010 at 2:39 pm UTC
Oprah should of spoke out more on HIV/AIDS but why are we not pointing the finger at others such as Ellen and Dr. Phil .. they all have the power to talk about it and people listen..
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Comment by: Rhiannon (Louisville,KY) Thu., Oct. 14, 2010 at 2:06 pm UTC
I feel that Oprah should do something, however I don't see Ellen doing anything, she comes in second to Oprah if not they are about even.I dont see anything on the doctors shows so why pick on Oprah when so many others could be doing it too. I think we should contact all of them.
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Comment by: Mike C (Jackson, MS) Thu., Oct. 14, 2010 at 1:36 pm UTC
First off, I'm not a fan of Oprah Winfrey, so go ahead and revoke my gay card.

However, I think that you're missing the point. Married women are not getting tested because (A) they believe in their committed relationships (B) they believe it can't happen to them because they are straight and (C) most HIV prevention programs do not address heterosexually married couples.

Down low or not, is not the point as a black community only disease. I was married for 16 years. Came out, without cheating on my wife, went through with the divorce, then began a downward spiral of guilt and shame because of what I did to her and my kids. Within 5 years, I was HIV+. Sadly it took her another 8+ years to realize that she was not positive, and that I'd actually told the truth about being faithful. Finally, she opened her heart and trust to another man and is now happily married. My kids and I have a close relationship once again.

What shocked me was how naive I was as to the "married world", of men using highway rest areas, cruising gay bars with and without their wedding rings (some gay men get into that sort of thing) and frequenting bath houses. All the while, they'd return to their married "wife" and have unprotected sex, and far be it from getting tested.

It's a cruel world out there in regards to HIV/AIDS, Syphilis, Gonorrhea, Hep C and other sexually transmitted diseases. Personally, I think Oprah was trying to bring light to another face of the risks that are out there in society.

Again, not a fan, but certainly support her trying to educate women about their naivety when it comes to protecting their bodies.
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Comment by: Kathleen (NJ) Thu., Oct. 14, 2010 at 1:34 pm UTC
I just left the following message on Oprahs site:
Oprah - you NEED to be FAIR and BALANCED when presenting topics on HIV/AIDS. Instead of the tabloid-style "My man done me wrong" episode - how about talking about the advancements discussed at the AIDS meeting in Vienna? A cream developed for women to be able to defend themselves against HIV+ unprotected sex. How about having a physician or knowledgeable AIDS advocate to offer PROFESSIONAL, true comment/advice? And Magic Johnson is NOT the real face of HIV/AIDS! Stop invoking his name! Get someone who REALLY LIVES a real life w/ the disease and has to go to work, care for a family, manage their health and pay their bills in the REAL WORLD! Please, Oprah - you need to be more responsible and less sensational.
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Comment by: Adia (Richmond, VA) Wed., Oct. 13, 2010 at 8:44 pm UTC
I deleted the show before watching it, because I was not interested in watching a woman who sued her husband (the info on the show was no more detailed) I wish I'd watched it after reading your piece. I wish more folks, particularly in the African-American community realized how sensationalized and false down-low and homophobic stories that blame AIDS solely on homosexual and bi-sexual activity actually fuel ignorant and irresponsible heterosexual behavior. Great piece!
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Comment by: Taya C. (Ocala,Florida) Wed., Oct. 13, 2010 at 8:05 pm UTC
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Comment by: brooklyn (seattle) Wed., Oct. 13, 2010 at 5:35 pm UTC
Interesting. When I was diagnosed and began writing a book about being a POS female, I actually emailed her show to see if she was interested in covering the topic, since shes not only a woman, but one of the most powerful ones in America.

When I was diagnosed I was angry that no Hollywood type people seem to acknowledge HIV/AIDS exists. When statistically some of them have it, and should be speaking out about it.
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