More Culture:

November 17, 2015

Charlie Sheen's reveal prompts a closer look at HIV stigma

Actor's brave admission adds new face to conversations on virus

Love him or hate him, Charlie Sheen did something gutsy today. 

The controversial actor revealed that he’s HIV-positive, and his admission will help reshape how we view the virus. 

Before the gossip tabloids broke the full story that the 50-year-old actor, known for his popular role on television’s "Two and a Half Men," had been living with HIV for the past four years, Sheen told the world on "Today."  

"I have to put a stop to this onslaught, this barrage of attacks and of sub-truths and very harmful and mercurial stories that are about me, threatening the health of so many others that couldn't be further from the truth," he told reporter Matt Lauer.

While some may suggest Sheen was forced into revealing his HIV-positive status due to blackmail allegations, his disclosure was not owed to us. 

In a world of instant news gratification and short attention spans, society has lost a bit of humanity in regard to sensitive subject matter. Just because someone’s personal information is accessible at the click of a mouse or the tap of a cell phone screen doesn’t mean it should be taken for granted. 

Charlie Sheen is now one of the most famous HIV-positive faces in mainstream pop culture. We shouldn’t take lightly what it could mean for discussions surrounding the stigma of those with HIV. 

As an openly gay young black male, my face has always been stereotyped as the demographic most susceptible for HIV infection. Even though new studies have now shown that trans women are at a higher risk than other communities for contracting the virus, the Center of Disease Control still states my demographic contracts 20 percent of all new HIV cases in America. 

Charlie Sheen is a middle-aged, straight white man living with HIV. He has the potential to change how everyday people perceive the virus. Because HIV awareness and prevention campaigns have frequently been overcast with the poor, urban, LGBTQ and black, Sheen's visibility now adds a missing face to this movement.

Ask anyone if they know any white straight men like Sheen who have HIV in Philly, and they will most likely say no. Ask anyone to do the same for other populations outside of their hetero-normative space, and they will point to The Gayborhood.

Today, our society is being pushed to address this issue and learn more about it. For the first time today, many will actually Google what it means to be “undetectable” and how HIV and AIDS aren't the same. Many will read mainstream publications that will cover how HIV is no longer a “deadly” disease and will see various takes on how the virus has been suppressed. 

And the irony of all of these “new” findings is that the information was available yesterday and the day before and months before that. But because one of Hollywood's bad boys told us something we never expected to hear from him, many of us learned something new about something that should be history by now. 

The ignorance I have seen on my social feeds about this topic today and the fact I felt the need to remind others that I’m HIV negative just because I spoke about it is a sign that we still have work to do. 

But I will soak this moment of awareness in as long as I can for the many friends and mentors I personally know who are living with HIV. 

They aren’t “afflicted,” “devastated,” or “impacted.” They are simply “living.”

It’s time to start letting the living continue to do so without stigma.