The last celebrity I remember publicly coming out as HIV+ was Magic Johnson in 1991. Apart from him, the only other celebrity that comes to mind is Jack Mackenroth and he’s not even really famous outside of the gay world. So no celebrities since 1991 have ever caught HIV, right? And that’s great, right? Hmm… no.
Think of it—can you name a single celebrity right now who has publicly admitted having HIV? Even Wikipedia’s listing for famous HIV+ people has nary a big name on it past the late ’90s. Does that mean that every star in Hollywood is HIV-negative? I seriously doubt it.
Yet with all the new drugs and treatments looming, one can potentially live a long-healthy while HIV+. In fact, some people consider HIV a manageable illness like cancer. Like AIDS, cancer is a worldwide epidemic that kills millions. And though some celebrities publicly come out as having cancer, if they wanna keep it quiet and deal with it in peace, that’s their right, right? No if no celebrity comes out as HIV+, that’s their business and no skin off of anyone’s backs, right?
But there’s something problematic about the perception that the rich and famous don’t get HIV. For one, it makes HIV become an “other person’s” disease—a disease for people of color, the poor and the unattractive. And with that perception comes a deeper shame. AIDS and HIV becomes a second closet and that no self-respecting public figure should come out of, lest they sacrifice their career.
For two, the lack of an HIV+ celebrity removes HIV and AIDS from the national spotlight. When Rock Hudson got AIDS, Elizabeth Taylor helped bring closeted Hollywood, the deadly epidemic and its attendant medical needs into the national spotlight. When young Ryan White contracted HIV in 1984, he became a sympathetic national face of HIV-phobia, HIV+ children, and HIV education in schools. When Magic Johnson announced his HIV status in 1991, it started nationwide conversations on HIV in sports, safe-sex in the African-American community, and destigmatizing the disease.
But even though some stars continue to do great advocacy work on AIDS and HIV, none do it as openly positive, so we persevere under the impression that it no longer effects America’s public face. The faces we see on TV and film don’t have HIV and never will. Even if their characters do, they won’t.
I’m conflicted: Do I want a celebrity to contract HIV and focus their career on AIDS advocacy just so more Americans will talk about the ongoing epidemic? Of course not. But without a visible face for the American pop-cultural mind to consider, HIV and AIDS remains “someone else’s problem,” those needing a role model feel alone, and a vital national conversation is left unspoken.