Beiwel: Charlie Sheen’s admission shows that HIV stigma is alive


Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Charlie Sheen in 2009.

Maddy Beiwel

“I’m tired of pretending I’m not special,” said Charlie Sheen in early 2011. This declaration was accompanied by the revelation that he had a hitherto unknown substance called “tiger’s blood” running through his veins, accompanied by “Adonis DNA.” The interview, which came after a debacle that would conclude with Sheen’s firing from the hit TV show “Two and a Half Men,” entertained the nation and spawned several parodies.

We now know that these were not the light-hearted, albeit manic, ramblings of a semi-delusional man. Sheen’s binge on drugs, alcohol and prostitutes was, in his own words, a “suicide run.” Because four years ago, about the time we were all chanting “Winning!” at each other and sporting Adonis DNA T-shirts, Sheen was coming to terms with the fact that he had been diagnosed with HIV.

Freddie Mercury, Magic Johnson, Rock Hudson and Eazy-E were all respected men in our society who contracted the human immunodeficiency virus. In three of these cases, HIV progressed into AIDS, which led to Eazy-E’s and Mercury’s subsequent deaths. Though HIV has been circulating throughout the population for more than 100 years, it only really became an issue in the United States during the early ’80s.

It was first recorded as manifesting as a rare type of lung infection called Kaposi’s sarcoma, which aggressively impacts the skin, mouth and lymph nodes. Originally it was known as gay-related immune deficiency because the public perception was that it only spread among gay men. While this perception was obviously inaccurate, it fanned the fire of demonization against homosexuals and caused phrases such as “Got AIDS yet?” and “AIDS kills fags dead.”

While we now know that HIV can affect any person, regardless of class, race, gender or sexual orientation, there is still a huge stigma surrounding HIV in the United States and throughout the world. This stigma includes the beliefs that HIV is transmitted solely through sex, is the result of “personal irresponsibility” or “moral fault” and can be spread through everyday actions such as handshakes or hugging.

There is also self-stigma, which is the shame experienced by people diagnosed with HIV. It can deteriorate their “ability to live positively” and in, some cases, can lead to a decrease in their adherence to treatment and care. This can be the result of previous misconceptions about the disease or anger at themselves because they feel they should have been more careful or known better.

Every year, 50,000 new people are infected with HIV, and, as the number grows, the perception of HIV changes. While once it was a death sentence, HIV can be treated with a mix of antiretroviral drugs that can greatly extend the person’s life, the goal being to increase the amount of time for HIV to evolve into AIDS. These drugs decrease the person’s “viral load,” meaning the amount of HIV in their body. This greatly decreases the risk of transmission between partners.

According to his doctor, Sheen’s viral load is, much like approximately 90 percent of HIV-positive people’s, undetectable. While HIV is incurable, Sheen is very unlikely to pass on the virus.

People with HIV are just as likely to live full, healthy lives.

So why does the public still react to a proclamation of positive status as some huge, life-shattering thing that shifts the entire view of the person? What’s more, people are coming out of the woodwork to say it was obvious based on the way he acts or looks, with the baffling implication that HIV is in a person’s expression, skin tone or schedule. We are not in the height of AIDS terror anymore, and digs at Sheen for being HIV positive are digs at all who share that status.

Rock Hudson revealed his HIV-positive status in July 1985 and died in October that same year. I wasn’t around at that time, but I believe that the waif-thin, frail appearance of a man who was once the pinnacle of masculinity helped to mold the country’s view of what an HIV-positive person looks and acts like. After his death, Hudson was blasted not just for his positive status but for his homosexuality. I like to think that we’ve moved past that.

HIV is not the death sentence it once was, but there is still shame attached to it. Unlike other celebrities who put off admitting they had the infection until the last possible minute, Sheen stepped out into the light and took the blow to his chest. In an open letter, he stated that he was “claiming back his life.” He writes, “I accept this condition not as a curse or scourge but rather as an opportunity and a challenge. An opportunity to help others. A challenge to better myself … My philanthropic days are ahead of me.”

These statements have been met with skepticism. Even now, rumors are swirling about Sheen’s conduct, and we can expect more in the future. The media chatters and speculates and, even if a speculation or two proves true, the fact remains that what he did was noble and brave. The act surpasses Sheen as a person and provides a beacon for those facing the same diagnosis.