For as long as we’ve known about HIV/AIDS, people have had to handle the reality of coming out as living with HIV. Disclosing your HIV status to family and friends is often difficult—and when you’re in the public eye, coming out as living with HIV adds a major decision about whether you want the whole world to know.
Many celebrities have chosen to share that part of themselves with the public. Often, that choice helps the rest of us: By coming out, they can humanize the virus for many people who don’t otherwise know anybody who’s openly living with HIV. They can help increase awareness and fight stigma.
Here’s a rundown of some of the most famous people living with HIV, both today and in years past.
Jonathan Van Ness
Jonathan Van Ness is the breakout star of Netflix’s Queer Eye reboot. As the new Fab Five gained prominence and a place in pop culture, Van Ness came out about living with HIV in a September 2019 profile in The New York Times ahead of the release of his memoir, Over the Top.
In the profile, Van Ness also spoke about his own past experience of sexual assault and his drug addiction, as well as his compounding traumas.
“When Queer Eye came out, it was really difficult because I was like, ‘Do I want to talk about my status?’” he told the Times. “And then I was like, ‘The Trump administration has done everything they can do to have the stigmatization of the LGBT community thrive around me.’” He then added, “I do feel the need to talk about this.”
Charlie Sheen is known as much for his off-screen antics as he is for his on-screen comedy chops. When he came out as living with HIV in November 2015, he was about four years out from leaving one of CBS’ most successful sitcoms, Two and a Half Men, where he was replaced by Ashton Kutcher.
Sheen is also known as the youngest member of the Sheen acting family, which includes Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez. He was known as something of a Hollywood “bad boy” and talked openly about drug use, a lot of sex, and sex with sex workers.
Sheen was forced to come out while the National Enquirer was preparing a story that would’ve outed his HIV status, proving that HIV stigma still negatively affects people living with HIV today. When he did come out, Sheen shared that he was on antiretroviral medication and that he was undetectable.
One study estimated that Charlie Sheen’s disclosure was a more effective HIV awareness campaign than any that a city health department could cook up. In the 24 hours following his disclosure, Sheen’s announcement:
Prompted the highest number of HIV-related searches ever seen on Google to that point: 2.75 million more than any other day.
HIV searches went up 471% that day.
Of those searches, 1.25 million included words like “condoms,” “HIV testing,” and “HIV symptoms.”
Searches stayed relatively high for about 72 hours after the announcement, as well.
It would be hard to talk about celebrities living with HIV and not bring up Magic Johnson. When Johnson, one of basketball’s greatest players, came out as living with HIV in 1991, it was a watershed moment in HIV awareness. He was a strong, physically able athlete coming out at a time before we had effective HIV medications, when the most common depiction of a person with HIV was a person dying with HIV.
Since his diagnosis, he continues to thrive, which has led some people to believe that he is cured. But in his appearances, he continues to educate people and remind them that he’s not cured, he’s simply on effective medications.
“I do have it and have had it for 22 years. It’s just laying asleep in my body. The drugs have done their part, and I’ve done my part by exercising and having a positive attitude about having HIV,” Johnson explained while appearing on SiriusXM radio’s Hip-Hop Nation in 2014.
Rock Hudson was the epitome of 1950s straight, male, macho movie stars. His AIDS diagnosis and AIDS-related death in 1985 came as a shock to many. Before he came out, his publicity team said that he had liver cancer. Hudson came forward in July 1985 and was, at the time, the first major celebrity to say that he was living with AIDS.
Hudson died a few months later, in October 1985, at age 59. For many, seeing Hudson gaunt was a far cry from the buff matinee idol he had been barely a decade prior. In the wake of his death, his Giant co-star Elizabeth Taylor became a well-known AIDS activist and led the fight within Hollywood to raise money for research.
In June 2015, then 29-year-old genderqueer rapper Mykki Blanco revealed on their Facebook page that they had been living with HIV since 2011—or as they put it, “my entire career.”
“Fuck stigma and hiding in the dark,” their initial post said. “No more living a lie,” they added in the post’s comments section.
Since coming out, Blanco has called out some national AIDS organizations for typecasting stars who are living with HIV. In February 2018, Blanco tweeted, “It would be awesome if you would book me to perform at one of your Galas like you do so many HIV-negative pop stars instead of continually using me as a token.” Blanco was referring to amfAR, who had used Blanco to highlight its own actions around National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness, but invited HIV-negative bisexual singer Halsey to perform at its gala.
Freddie Mercury was a bisexual sex icon and the frontman for Queen, one of the best-selling rock bands of all time and the masters behind iconic stadium rock songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Will Rock You.” Mercury tested positive in 1987 and died of AIDS-related pneumonia four years later, only one day after he shared his HIV-positive status with the world.
If you’ve seen the film Bohemian Rhapsody, then you know that the movie played a little fast and loose with the facts around his diagnosis. That was one of the many controversies surrounding the film: It fudged the timeline to make Freddie Mercury seem to apologize for acquiring HIV and being reckless. In reality, that’s not what happened. The film raised a lot of ethical issues about how to portray people living with HIV after their death.
Bohemian Rhapsody was also the second film in recent years to feature an HIV-negative actor who went on to win an Academy Award for portraying someone living with HIV. It happened twice in 2014, when both Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto won Oscars for their performances in Dallas Buyers Club, the latter for playing a transgender woman living with HIV.
Gia Carangi was one of the first world-recognized supermodels. She was one of the fashion world’s most sought-out modeling talents and appeared on the cover of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. However, her career was cut short when she died in 1986 after struggling with a heroin addiction.
Carangi is known for paving the way for some of the biggest names in fashion modeling who appeared in the early 1990s, including Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford. [Her death was largely kept quiet].
Despite her enormous fame, her funeral service was held in a small, modest venue and not widely publicized.
Angelina Jolie eventually portrayed Carangi in the HBO biopic Gia.
While you may not know what Keith Haring looked like—or even who he was—there’s a great chance that you’ve encountered his art. The HIV-positive artist, who died in 1990 after being diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, is behind some of the most recognizable symbols in commercial art. His graffiti dancing figures have been featured on everything from Adidas apparel to clothes at Uniqlo.
Haring was always very open about his HIV diagnosis and spent the last years of his life raising awareness and starting the Keith Haring Foundation, which to this day supports organizations that work in HIV/AIDS prevention and education.
Rap legend and co-founder of the group N.W.A., along with Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, Eazy-E came out in 1995 as having been diagnosed with AIDS. The N.W.A. album Straight Outta Compton went double platinum in 1988 and is one of the most influential albums in rap history.
Eazy-E died only one month after his AIDS diagnosis, at age 31. His diagnosis and death were depicted in the Academy Award–nominated film Straight Outta Compton, released in 2015. In the film, Eazy-E was played by Jason Mitchell. The film depicts the three members of N.W.A. about to reunite at the time of his death.
There were longstanding rumors that Eazy-E was deliberately infected with HIV using an acupuncture needle—which is part of a longstanding, harmful myth that HIV is frequently weaponized. But those rumors are untrue.
Eazy-E is often cited as one of rap’s legends. His death was covered widely in media, including in magazines like Newsweek, Jet, and Vibe.
Disco legend Sylvester James, known simply as Sylvester, was a legendary singer and songwriter from San Francisco known for his signature song, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” and for his flamboyant appearance and falsetto singing voice. Sylvester died in 1988 from AIDS-related complications.
Sylvester left royalties from his music to the AIDS Emergency Fund and to Rita Rockett’s food program at San Francisco General Hospital’s Ward 86 for people diagnosed with AIDS. The year of his death, Sylvester was working on his third studio album, knowing that he may very well never be able to release it.
At the time of his death, Sylvester fought to make more people realize that AIDS was very much an urgent concern for Black people in the U.S.
“It bothers me that AIDS is still thought of as a gay, white male disease,” Sylvester told the Los Angeles Times. “The Black community is at the bottom of the line when it comes to getting information, even when we’ve been so hard hit by this disease. I’d like to think that by going public myself with this, I can give other people courage to face it.”
Trinity K. Bonet
Trinity K. Bonet was a contestant on the sixth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. While a contestant on the show, she notoriously dealt with self-doubt and ultimately came out as living with HIV to her fellow contestants.
Trinity was diagnosed with HIV in 2012, two years before Drag Race’s sixth season aired. Bonet was known on the show for her fierce lip-sync skills, delivering legendary performances to Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” and Paula Abdul’s “Vibeology.”
In an interview with NewNowNext, Bonet said she spoke about her diagnosis publicly “so that I could help someone else going through the same thing. And I wanted my fans to understand that their idols aren’t superheroes. You can go through what I’m going through and not be scared.”
Prolific author Isaac Asimov published 477 books in his lifetime. He passed away in 1992 at the age of 72. When he died, he was given a New York Times obituary that omitted one word from its coverage: AIDS. That’s wasn’t exactly the Times’ fault, though.
According to a letter written 10 years after his death by his wife Janet Asimov, Isaac was diagnosed with AIDS from a blood transfusion in 1983. Showing just how fierce stigma was at the time, doctors advised him and his family to keep his diagnosis secret.
Isaac was born in the Soviet Union and came to the United States as an immigrant, where he came to be known as one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time. He even founded his own science fiction magazine to give young writers an opportunity to publish their work.
Much like Asimov, tennis legend Arthur Ashe received HIV through a blood transfusion. Ashe, a heterosexual Black man, came out in April 1992 about his diagnosis, only a few months after Magic Johnson, another Black athlete, came forward.
During Ashe’s coming-out press conference, his wife Jeanne talked about how they discussed his diagnosis with their then-5-year-old daughter, Camera. “Arthur and I must teach her how to react to new, different, and sometimes cruel comments that have very little to do with her reality,” Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe said at the time.
Ashe was forced to come out after a USA Today reporter called him and told him he had been tipped off about Ashe’s HIV status. “I am angry that I was put in a position of having to lie if I wanted to protect my privacy,” he said at the time.
Ashe was the first Black man to win the U.S. Open and Wimbledon titles. After his diagnosis, he created the Arthur Ashe Endowment for the Defeat of AIDS.
Despite a lifetime of living out loud as an iconic, flamboyant pianist, Liberace chose to keep his AIDS diagnosis and subsequent illness private until his death in 1987. Prior to his death, staff said he was at Eisenhower Medical Center for “the effects of a watermelon diet.”
Liberace died at his home in Palm Springs. His attorney, Joel Strote, said he chose to die there because “he wanted to rest in the place he loves.” Fans gathered outside his home to hold vigil before his death.
During his storied career, Liberace appeared in numerous films and TV shows and released several albums. For over a decade, he was the highest-paid entertainer in the world and became known for his opulence.
Despite his flamboyance, Liberace was not public about his sexuality. In fact, during two libel suits he brought against the media in the 1950s, he testified under oath that he wasn’t gay.
Palm Springs offered him reprieve from the pressure to lie.
“No one commented on the comings and goings at the Liberace house, nor his appearances in restaurants with blond young men,” his biographer wrote in 1988. “Palm Springs had long observed with tolerant eyes the peccadillos of Hollywood celebrities who enjoyed unwinding and sometimes misbehaving in the desert.”
Fela Kuti, also known simply as Fela, was a musical icon who is credited with founding Afrobeat, which mixes Nigerian music, Ghanaian music, jazz, funk, and other elements. But aside from being a hugely influential and talented musician, Fela was also a political activist who used his music to critique the Nigerian government and its lack of investment in the health and education of Nigerian people.
“The political part was very essential in the music all the time,” his son Femi Kuti says in the documentary Finding Fela! “He couldn’t understand the love songs in Africa, with so much poverty and suffering.”
Fela died in 1997 from Kaposi sarcoma. Many people living in Nigeria said that Fela’s sharing his HIV status was akin to Magic Johnson sharing his HIV status in the United States.
Though Kuti died from an AIDS-related illness, he did not talk about his status while he was alive.
“You have to understand the effect of colonialism on people like my father,” Femi Kuti said. “If Europe talks about AIDS or that AIDS is killing Africa, then people like him would have to fight back. There was not enough proof during my father’s era that AIDS was caused by sex. I think the way AIDS was marketed—the propaganda against AIDS was not well put together by the UN.”
All of the Arquette siblings, like their father and grandfather, were involved in Hollywood in some way. Alexis was the second-youngest; Rosanna, Richmond and Patricia are older, while only one, David, is younger.
While David Arquette is well-known for his roles in the Scream franchise and Patricia Arquette is an Oscar and an Emmy winner, Alexis initially made a name for herself in smaller, independent films, and B-movies. Some of her most notable roles were in the films Last Exit to Brooklyn, The Bride of Chucky, The Wedding Singer, and a cameo role in Pulp Fiction.
Arquette starred in many roles on the big screen, but she became a reality TV star when she appeared on the sixth and final season of The Surreal Life opposite rocker CC Deville, actress Tawny Kitaen, and The Jeffersons star Sherman Helmsley. Arquette brought awareness to the trans community throughout her run on the show and was considered a pioneer for trans people in the genre.
Arquette died in 2016 at the age of 47. She had been diagnosed with HIV in 1987, but died of an infection in her liver.
Arquette often struggled to find work, as her openness about her gender identity meant that directors would turn her down for roles. "She was rightfully angry that she should have had the success and notoriety that comes with being such a talented actor and being born into a family that presents the opportunity,” a close friend told the Hollywood Reporter at the time of her death.
Anthony Perkins is known for playing one of film’s greatest horror villains: Psycho’s Norman Bates. But he had a long, productive career that spanned over four decades.
Oddly enough, Perkins only tested for HIV after reading that he was HIV positive in an article in the tabloid National Enquirer. His wife, Berry Berenson, said she suspected that someone who was involved in testing his blood for a different illness leaked the results to the press.
Perkins and his wife stayed mum about his HIV status from his diagnosis until his death in 1992. He was scared that he would not be offered any more roles if he went public.
Perkins was quoted as saying that he learned “more about love, selflessness, and human understanding from the people I have met in this great adventure in the world of AIDS than I ever did in the cutthroat, competitive world in which I spent my life.”
In September 2015, then-39-year-old Danny Pintauro publicly disclosed that he had been living with HIV for 12 years. Pintauro was a child star in the 1980s and ’90s, known for playing Jonathan Bower on Who’s the Boss?
Pintauro spoke openly about his HIV diagnosis on The View. His appearance was widely panned—not due to anything he said or did wrong, but for the stigmatizing and uncomfortable questions his hosts posed, including asking whether he and his partner used condoms during sex.
During the interview, fellow former child star Candace Cameron Bure asked Pintauro if he took “responsibility for your actions, for being promiscuous, going into a lifestyle of having heightened sex because of the meth that you were using?” Pintauro was open about acquiring HIV while living with a meth addiction during his 20s.
Since his public disclosure, Pintauro has become involved with some HIV awareness campaigns. He also briefly wrote for TheBody in 2016.
André De Shields
With 14 Broadway credits and a Tony award to his name, De Shields is nothing short of a Broadway legend. In addition to acting and singing, he is also an accomplished choreographer and director. De Shields came out as living with HIV in an interview with TheBody in 2020, after three decades of keeping his status private.
“First of all, I love myself,” De Shields said. “I’m not in love with myself, but I do love myself, because I’ve learned if I can’t love me, how can I love someone else? And I trust myself, which is why my soul is not ready to leave. Because we’re having a good time here. We’ve got things to do, places to go, people to see, things to achieve.”
De Shields is a highly decorated performer: Aside from the Tony, he’s also garnered an Emmy, an Outer Critics Circle Award, an Obie, and others.
Robert Reed was America’s dad as Mike Brady on The Brady Bunch. That made it shocking for many when they found out that the actor, who was gay, died of an AIDS-related illness in 1992.
Reed had kept quiet about his diagnosis. It was The National Enquirer who outed Reed’s status.
After his death, Brady Bunch star and reality TV personality Christopher Knight called Reed “as good or better a father figure than my own dad.”
He added, “I learned very early that if that was what gay was, it has no measure in the ability of somebody to be a fine representation of a good human being.”
Greg Louganis was one of America’s best-known athletes in the 1980s, when he won five individual Olympic medals as a diver, including four gold medals: two at the 1984 Summer Olympics and two more at the 1988 games.
Louganis’ career ended abruptly after the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, where a mistake while diving left him with a gash in his head and his blood spilling out into the Olympics pool. It wasn’t the injury itself that brought his career to a close, though—it was the unfounded fear he developed for potentially putting other divers at risk, given that he had been diagnosed with HIV only six months earlier.
Louganis said in a documentary about his life that, unlike other lauded athletes, he “never got a Wheaties box,” as his being gay “didn’t fit their wholesome demographic.”
Louganis’s boyfriend tested positive for HIV in 1988, and he was diagnosed shortly after. During the 1988 games, his coach smuggled his HIV medication into the Olympic Village, as he wouldn’t have been allowed to compete if his status were public knowledge.
In 2012, gay Australian Olympic gymnast Ji Wallace came out as HIV positive and cited Louganis as an inspiration.
It’s hard to talk about the HIV epidemic and not mention Pedro Zamora. With his appearance on MTV’s The Real World in 1994, Zamora brought the reality of HIV into many people’s homes via their television sets.
Zamora had worked as an AIDS educator following his diagnosis in 1989, and viewed The Real World as a way to educate Americans like no one had done before. His casting on the show is credited with raising consciousness about AIDS, especially among young people.
“One of the problems I face as an educator is that I can get up and tell my story about not feeling well or having fun, about getting sick or going out dancing, but people can’t really see it, and I thought being on the series would be a great way to show how a young person actually deals with HIV and AIDS,” Zamora said in 1994. “And I also thought, it’s four or five months in San Francisco, how bad could it be?”
Zamora grew more ill as the season progressed, and he eventually passed away in November 1994 at age 22, just one day after the season’s final episode aired.
Heavyweight boxer and Rocky V star Tommy Morrison was diagnosed with HIV in 1996. But though he initially went on medication and sought counsel with other people living with HIV, Morrison eventually fell prey to AIDS denialism and began to doubt his status.
“I’ll trust an attorney before I’ll trust a doctor,” he once said. After one month of taking meds, he threw the rest in the garbage. “I will lay down and die before I take any drugs,” he insisted.
“I remember talking to Magic the day I announced I had HIV,” Morrison told ESPN writer Tom Friend in 1998. “He was preaching, ‘Do what your doctor tells you.’ Well, I didn’t have a doctor then, so I got down on my knees and I prayed. Every day, I was like, ‘God, what do I do?’ Hell, I saw myself dying. And then I started getting all these books in the mail, and they all said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Just live your life.’ So that’s what I did.”
Morrison died in September 2013.
Born in Texas in 1931, Alvin Ailey was an enormously influential choreographer who established the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958 as a testament to the Black American cultural experience.
Ailey was honored by the Kennedy Center in 1988 for his contributions to the arts; he died a year later, on Dec. 1, 1989, of AIDS-related complications. He was 58.
“His story gives people hope. It gives people perspective, not just on dance: It really touches your own life where you’re looking at yourself [and] who you are as a human being,” Troy Powell, artistic director of Ailey II (formerly the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble), said in 2019. “His legacy is so profound.”
Barry Jenkins, Academy Award–winning director and writer of If Beale Street Could Talk (based on James Baldwin’s novel) and Moonlight, recently announced that he will helm a biopic of Ailey.
We often talk of a generation of queer artists we’ve lost to the AIDS epidemic—and indeed, we’ve lost far too many. But happily, many such artists living with HIV are still alive and well, making great work.
"The film has been dogged by accusations of homophobia," writes Laurie Marhoefer. "But as a gay historian, I keep coming back to something else –- the tragic history that's glaringly absent from this movie."