A red ribbon is put on the sleeves of a man by his friend to show support for people living with HIV during a program to raise awareness about AIDS on World AIDS Day in Kathmandu on Dec. 1, 2013.
Photo by Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters

Exclusive: Hollywood challenged to be more inclusive of HIV status

Updated

Fans of the hit television drama How to Get Away with Murder found out on Thursday what they had been patiently waiting five months learn: Who murdered Lila Stangard.

True to life, however, not all of the news from February’s two-hour season finale was expected. Oliver Hampton, one of the show’s most-beloved characters, received an irreversible medical diagnosis: He was HIV-positive. 

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Although diagnosis like Hampton’s are given by health officials every day across the globe, that’s not what’s represented on television. Until last night, there was no recurring HIV-positive character on a scripted show on all four major broadcast networks, despite the fact that there were 35 million people living with HIV/AIDS worldwide as of 2013. Two days ago, there was just one HIV-positive character on all of television: Eddie on Looking, which airs on premium channel HBO.

That’s why GLAAD, an organization that fights for fair and accurate representations of the LGBT community, is teaming up with two leading AIDS organizations to urge Hollywood to develop more characters and stories that reflect the nation’s HIV/AIDS population. The move is part of a larger push by the organization that fights for fair and accurate representations of the LGBT community and its partners the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and AIDS United to reengage the media and entertainment industry, news media, and all Americans in the three decades long fight to eradicate HIV and AIDS. 

Current CDC data reveals that one in four new HIV infections occur among youth and young adults ages 13 to 24. Moreover, there was a 22% increase in new HIV infections among gay and bisexual men in this age group between 2008 and 2010. Almost half of all new infections among black gay and bisexual men were in this age group — a shockingly disproportionate impact rate. 

Today, the situation remains dire. “The country has not seen a decrease in the number of new infections in over a decade despite the tools that exist to help reduce transmission by 96%,” said Joel Goldman, managing director of the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF).  

“I wanted to introduce the story line, because it felt very real to me, and I actually haven’t seen it dealt with on TV very recently,” How to Get Away with Murder creator Pete Nowalk said to Entertainment Weekly after the finale aired. “Especially in their age group, with people maybe not using condoms as much as they should, people end up HIV positive.” 

In San Francisco, where Looking takes place, one person is infected with HIV every day. “With HIV infection rates rising among young people in the U.S., it’s hard to believe that I play one of the only recurring HIV-positive character on scripted television today,” said Daniel Franzese, the actor who plays Eddie. 

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GLAAD, itself, was originally formed by a group of activists, Vito Russo among them, who rose up against homophobic and inaccurate portrayals of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that were being printed in the New York Post. Now, they’re putting their red ribbon back on display for all to see.

“Just as we advocated for accurate coverage of HIV and AIDS in the 1980s, it is equally important today that we ensure fair, accurate, and inclusive stories in the media to build understanding that leads to better prevention,” said GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis. 

As part of their efforts, GLAAD will release a new style guide that offers best practices for journalists who cover HIV/AIDS. Recent medical advancements such as PrEP, the once-a-day-pill taken to prevent HIV transmission, have radically altered the way the medical world prevents and treats the virus. 

Along with its public call to action to Hollywood and style guide, GLAAD and ETAF will also produce a series of public service announcements that show how everyone, celebrities and ordinary Americans alike, can help stamp out HIV/AIDS. Produced by Tony Award-winner Martian Entertainment, the first PSA will premiere in March 2015.

“These three organizations partnering to provide essential tools for the media will hopefully inspire other TV programs to include HIV-positive characters as well news coverage about the state of HIV and AIDS in America,” said Franzese said. 

By no coincidence, this national awareness campaign was announced on what have been Elizabeth Taylor’s 83rd birthday. 

“Elizabeth Taylor devoted her life to the fight against HIV/AIDS for 27 years,” Goldman said of the late actress’ humanitarian legacy. “She took advantage of every opportunity to speak out and keep the subject of HIV and AIDS top of mind for the public.”

Now, according to this coalition of organizations, it’s time for Hollywood to take a page out of the Academy Award-winning actress’ playbook and use its power to continue to create open dialogues and awareness, just as Hampton’s story did last night. 

Exclusive: Hollywood challenged to be more inclusive of HIV status

Updated