Let’s face it, it’s been a rough one. More senseless shootings, more #MeToo controversies, more attacks on trans and immigrant rights – and more budget cuts affecting those living with HIV. As 2018 drew to a close, many in our country’s most marginalized communities may have been feeling a bit lost, a bit hopeless, and a bit depressed. And though its understandable that one could feel this way, we must also take note of the many positives that happened in 2018 – thanks to the indomitable strength of the human spirit. And some sound science.
One silver lining for those living with HIV this year was simple yet enormously powerful. We started talking about HIV again. It seems that after the panic around the initial epidemic of the 1980s began to subside – especially once the highly effective antiretrovirals used today were first developed in 1996 – we just stopped talking about HIV and AIDS. And since we stopped talking about it, we stopped learning about it. In turn, many misconceptions around the condition have remained solidly in place since. This was a “gay disease” after all – so it became even less of a concern once we had the meds to “take care of it.” And Magic Johnson is alive and well, so it’s all good, right? As we moved into the new millenium, HIV had simply became one less worry for Dick and Jane and their 2.5 kids. But in reality, HIV had not disappeared in our country by any means.
Stigma is the root of why we’re uncomfortable talking about HIV. We only want to sweep something under the rug when it makes us feel uncomfortable, frightened, or ashamed. But the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest estimate of over 38,500 new infections in the U.S. in 2015 proves we can no longer afford to be silent. Fortunately, several well-known people courageously came forward about being HIV-positive in 2018 in order to strike back at this long-enduring stigma.
ABC reporter Karl Schmid proved you could be a successful, charming, healthy heartthrob – while being HIV-positive – when he opened up about his status in March in a moving Facebook post: “For ten years the stigma and industry professionals have said, ‘Don’t! It’ll ruin you.’ But here’s the thing. I’m me. I’m just like you. I have a big heart and I want to be loved and accepted,” wrote Schmid, who also included a photo of himself looking quite hunky in an AIDS Monument t-shirt. “Love me or hate me, that’s up to you. But, for anyone who has ever doubted themselves because of those scary three letters and one symbol, let me tell you this, you are somebody who matters…. And don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. I’m Karl Schmid, and I’m an HIV-positive man!”
Other celebs, some directly inspired by Schmid’s bravery, also opened up about their status in 2018 – like beloved E! entertainment reporter Marc Malkin and his husband, Fabian Quezada-Malkin. “Karl is a good friend and was the final inspiration I needed,” Malkin told Plus magazine in August, shortly after coming out poz.
Young Broadway talents Hernando Umana (Kinky Boots) and Dimitri Moise (The Book of Mormon) also both opened up about being poz this year, bringing the much-needed conversation around HIV to millennials, a group with one of the fastest growing infection rates in the U.S.
These celebs turned HIV activists have at least one thing in common – they’re all super passionate about promoting the global U=U consensus now endorsed by hundreds of major health organizations from all over the world. The campaign was created to educate the world about the science behind “Undetectable=Untransmittable,” which simply means that when one’s viral load drops to undetectable (common for those on treatment today), they are unable to transmit HIV to others.
Umana, who bravely came out as gay in addition to being poz on Instagram in August, also included a photo of himself with the post. In it, the 30-year-old performer held a sign that read: “Living with HIV.” He acknowledges those who came before him in the post, and pretty much sums up where we’re at and where we need to get to, in terms of talking about HIV today.
“I stand on the shoulders of the millions of people who had to suffer and die from this disease. I stand on the shoulders of the gay men who were forced out of the closet in such a scary time. These men and woman fought and died to get to where we’re at now – to take a pill at night and never have to worry about dying. To get the disease to a point where it is IMPOSSIBLE to transmit (undetectable). How can I be ashamed of this? I honor their legacy by telling my story. So let’s talk about it. Let’s ask questions. Take your PrEP. Use condoms. Be SAFE. Let’s end this stigma forever and eventually end HIV forever!”