HIV-positive activists rally against stigma, ignorance after Charlie Sheen

'A lot of people are so ashamed that they won’t even go to the pharmacy to get their medicine.'

 

Mary Emily O'Hara

IRL

Published Nov 17, 2015   Updated May 27, 2021, 3:29 pm CDT

It’s been a rough 24 hours for the HIV-positive community.

Since Monday, the Internet has been clogged with speculative news reports and panic about Charlie Sheen’s then-rumored announcement of his HIV status. Much of the public response has been ugly—fueled by shocking levels of ignorance of the virus and how it is transmitted.

Then on Tuesday, it happened. Sheen went on the Today show and explained that he’s been hiding his HIV-positive status for four years. During that time, he said, he maintained an undetectable viral load due to antiviral suppressant medication. Like many of the estimated 1.2 million people living with HIV in the U.S., Sheen remained sexually active after being diagnosed.

“Charlie has contracted the HIV virus. He was immediately put on antiviral treatment which suppressed the virus,” said Sheen’s doctor of roughly five years, UCLA clinical medicine professor Robert Huizenga, on Today. “Charlie does not have AIDS. AIDS is a condition where the HIV virus markedly suppresses the immune system and you’re susceptible to rare cancers and infections. Charlie does not have any of that.”

Despite the assertions of a trusted medical professional who stated repeatedly that Sheen has consistently had an undetectable viral load (which makes the possibility of transmission extremely rare), the public panicked on Tuesday about the chance that Sheen could have passed on the virus to one of his many partners. Some of the panic veered toward painting Sheen as a criminal who should be jailed for having sex while HIV-positive.

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As far as we know, Sheen has never transmitted HIV to another person. Yet, he’s been tried and convicted in the public eye just for announcing his status.

What is it like to watch an uninformed, medically ignorant public fling itself into a 1980s-style AIDS panic when you are actually living with the virus? The Daily Dot reached out to three activists who speak openly about their positive status, and learned that the Sheen announcement has been hopeful, disappointing, frustrating, and most of all, an opportunity for setting the record straight on HIV.

“Sheen’s choice to disclose his status is huge, because it brings the discussion of disclosure, protection, and what it means to be undetectable to a larger audience,” said Tyler Curry, senior editor at HIV Equal. “Regardless of what people think of Sheen, he is the most famous celebrity living openly with HIV, and he now has the potential to bring awareness to issues that have largely fallen off the radar for the mainstream.”

Curry, 32, came out publicly in an Advocate editorial in 2012. In that essay, he wrote about feeling afraid to share his status with the world but that ultimately he hoped doing so would lead him to the right people—supportive, non-stigmatizing, a potential romantic partner who “isn’t afraid of some deep waters.”

Of the Sheen hysteria, Curry said, “It’s no wonder why people wonder why those living with HIV would be afraid to disclose their status.” Sheen’s former live-in girlfriend Bree Olson, a retired porn star, rushed to the Howard Stern show Tuesday morning to take a live HIV test and insist that Sheen never told her he was HIV-positive. Curry asked why the onus for disclosure has to rest on the person with the virus.

“Has anyone asked Bree Olson if she disclosed her HIV-negative status to Sheen, who is known for his voluminous sexual acts, before having sex with him?” asked Curry. “Olson isn’t HIV-positive, but even so, the entire weight of responsibility has landed on Sheen’s shoulders, and the public is naturally more inclined to agree with Olson because of her status.”

It’s an apt question to ask in the era of PrEP and undetectable viral loads: Shouldn’t every sexually active person assume that they could transmit HIV at some point and take the necessary precautions themselves? 

“I see so much responsibly being placed on those with HIV or AIDS. They responsibility is for everyone,” said activist Hydeia Broadbent in an interview with the Daily Dot on Tuesday. “We know in 2015 that there’s herpes, there’s genital warts, there’s HIV, so why are we not all dealing with this together? You need to ask: Why are you not bringing up the subject of using condoms? It’s also your body and your responsibility.”

Broadbent, 31, didn’t actually contract the virus—she was born with it. At six, she became one of the first HIV-positive children to speak in public about living with the virus. But Broadbent, who now works as a full-time consultant and speaker, also felt she had to jump into the online conversation around Sheen’s disclosure.

“A lot of people are so ashamed that they won’t even go to the pharmacy to get their medicine,” said Broadbent. “So my first thought was of the people who are ashamed and can’t come out to talk about it. I know people who are not public with their status and how deathly afraid they are of people finding out. It’s really something celebrities try to hide.”

Broadbent said she also felt compelled to address the Sheen situation on Twitter because she saw people making inappropriate jokes and comments, some of which got personal.

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Broadbent wasn’t the only person living with HIV who was taken aback at the public’s ignorance around HIV transmission in 2015. The Daily Dot spoke with Mark S. King, who writes the blog My Fabulous Disease and works as a speaker and educator. King noted that Sheen’s treatment regimen was typical of people who live with undetectable viral loads.

“At least this is an opportunity to update the public and pull them into the 21st century,” said King. “Charlie Sheen takes four pills a day. I take four or five pills a day. I’ve been undetectable for years. Years.”

King, who tested positive for HIV in 1985 when the test first became available, said the rampant online commentary—and sleazy tabloid media coverage—reminded him of the “AIDS Panic” era when actor Rock Hudson was outed.

“The tenor of much of the coverage is all about who did he sleep with, who did he tell or not tell, who did he infect,” said King. “We have this narrative as HIV-positive people being vectors of disease, of being untrustworthy, and of having a psychotic need to infect people without their knowledge.”

During the Today interview, Matt Lauer pointed out that 35 states criminalize sex without disclosing HIV-positive status. But that disclosure is always on the burden of the person with the virus, and it’s also a difficult thing to prove—leaving the door wide open for vindictive ex-partners and people who are so terrified of stigma that they will send an HIV-positive partner to prison even if they never contracted the virus.

“HIV-positive people are being put on trial for the crime of having had sex, not for transmitting the virus,” King said. “If Charlie Sheen has an undetectable viral load, as his doctor asserted, then I don’t care if he sleeps with the entire Dallas Cowboys cheerleader squad. He’s not infecting anyone.”

Not everyone online is diving headfirst into unfounded hysteria over Charlie Sheen’s status. King, Broadbent, and Curry all see this moment as one pregnant with the potential to educate and transform. Mostly, that means redirecting the public’s obsession with Sheen’s sex life into an examination of their own practices—especially regular testing.

For so long, HIV was thought of as exclusively the problem of gay men. But these days, the second-highest risk group most likely to contract the virus (after men who sleep with men) is black heterosexual women, according to the Centers for Disease Control. White and Latina heterosexual women aren’t far behind. Basically, HIV belongs to everyone now—and the only way to stop the spread of a virus is to first know you have it. And convincing people to get tested and disclose status is only made more challenging the more stigma and backlash increases.

“The people who pose a risk to us are those who didn’t get tested, and continue to carrying a high viral load because they aren’t getting treated,” said King. “The majority of cases are transmitted via people who didn’t know their status, and many cases are transmitted via people who know their status and are so paralyzed by stigma that they refuse to get treatment.”

Illustration by Max Fleishman

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*First Published: Nov 17, 2015, 11:08 pm CST