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HIV/AIDS in Hollywood Today

By Aless Piper

December 9, 2010

Does Andre Charles (RuPaul) have AIDS? People on the Internet Movie Database want to know. Apparently he's been looking a little gaunt. But I'm wondering why, 20-some-odd years into this epidemic, it's still the prime suspect when a gay man gets, or is suspected of being, ill. A double standard exists in our society because if Stephen Moyer looked ill, I wouldn't be writing this article. No one suspects that a straight star has AIDS, period, but if a star is gay, that's the only thing it can be.

Never mind that we really have no right to know in the first place. The fact that we see these celebrities plastered across the covers of glossy magazines, talk shows, and countless other forms of media tricks us into thinking we're best buddies and that, like best buds, we can speculate and pass judgement on their sex lives, their health, and countless other details in ways we wouldn't dream of doing to our hairstylist, for example. I certainly couldn't go to my hairstylist, who happens to be gay, and if he looked ill say "Oh it's not AIDS is it?" He'd show me the door in less than 10 seconds and I wouldn't blame him.

But the real-life world of celebrity is not the only place AIDS is still very much a "gay disease." It's also on television and in movies, the very place we see the celebrities we feel free to pass judgement on. Take for example the season finale of Brothers and Sisters. Saul, the beloved gay uncle who was in the closet for decades gets pressured by his nephew and nephew's partner to get tested. For them, they explain, it's like "spring cleaning." Saul has reservations however, he was in the closet for years, and what sex he had wasn't always safe. Ultimately he goes, gets tested, gets the results, lies, and at the end of the show cries "Don't touch me!" when he's bleeding after being involved in a multiple-car accident.

We were left reeling with the revelation that he does in fact have AIDS for the summer, while Brothers and Sisters hopefully wrote a good storyline for this character. The fact that the importance of getting tested was brought up in a major show, in a major way, is wonderful, but I can't help wondering why it had to be Saul. I mean, okay, he's never been tested, he's had unprotected sexual encounters, and he was deeply closeted when AIDS first hit. But there are lots of gay men who were around in the eighties, out or not, who don't have AIDS. AIDS activists and educators have spent years trying to convince people my age, and younger, that AIDS can happen to them; but when you turn on the TV, straight males and females rarely see that reality reflected. What they see instead is what society is comfortable with, men who sleep with men getting, living with, and dying from HIV/AIDS.

Oh there was the story arc on CSI New York where Stella maybe had AIDS but ultimately didn't, but when's the last time a straight character was HIV positive? If I tried, I could probably count those occurrences on two hands and that's been generous. There was Playing By Heart, the movie in which Angelina Jolie's character falls in love with a man who maybe, but they never really come out and say, has AIDS. And of course Roger in Rent.

According to statistics found on Avert.org, heterosexual sex accounts for "around two thirds of new infections" and "about the half the people who acquire HIV become infected before they turn 25." I'd like to think, given these statistics, more would be done to educate under-25 heterosexuals, but society continues to have blinders on about teen sex, so it's little wonder it isn't happening. Never mind that Sarah Palin's daughter got pregnant. If anything should have opened the eyes of every parent in the first world, regardless of political or religious affiliation, to reality that should have been it. According to an article that appeared in People magazine, Bristol didn't even know she could get pregnant! Which probably means she also didn't think, or know, she could get HIV or another STI.

So would it kill TV and movie writers to give us a young, heterosexual, character of either gender, who also happens to be HIV positive?

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