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 TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
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