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Charlie Sheen Plays Patient Zero: On HIV & Mainstream Culture
Mike Miksche , November 23rd, 2015 13:20

Thought we were over the AIDS panic of the 80s? Think again. In the wake of Charlie Sheen's revelation that he is HIV positive, Mike Miksche argues that mainstream heterosexual culture has a lot of catching up to do, and prejudice to overcome

"I am here to admit that I am in fact HIV positive," Charlie Sheen said to an audience of 5.5 million viewers on the Today show last Tuesday. He paused for a brief moment, allowing his admission to set in.

After Sheen’s doctor joined him on-set, host Matt Lauer explained: "This is an educational moment." They continued to talk through the meaning of "undetectable," and the difference between HIV and AIDS, which I found preposterous. You’d think they were introducing the world to this virus, as if a whole generation of gay men in the Western world didn’t die in the 80s from it. Then it occurred to me that that’s exactly what they were doing - American mainstream culture was too ignorant to care until now. Mr. Sheen is a straight, white male after all.

His confession sparked debate from North America to Europe and beyond. Even The New York Times, which had largely ignored the AIDS epidemic in the early 80s, was writing about it. Activist and writer, Larry Kramer, who was living in New York during this time explained in an interview earlier this year: "The world still doesn't know that AIDS is a worldwide plague and The Times still isn't telling us."

As a gay man, the fear of contracting HIV has been a big part of my sex life. It’s the world’s leading infectious killer with an estimated 39 million people dead since 1981, when the first cases were reported. I’ve watched some friends contract the virus over the years but I never once asked if they knew how they became infected, unlike Mr. Lauer of the Today show, nor did I equate their diagnosis with their lifestyle choices. Informed and liberal homosexuals are taught basic respect when dealing with this subject: you don’t judge and you don’t shame – no exceptions! Every single one of my friends is now undetectable, healthy, and some have even been so for tens of years. Yet the mainstream media is confused about and largely ignorant of this notion of being "undetectable".

This sort of illiteracy can set us back years, so for the record, one becomes "undetectable" through antiretroviral therapy, which lowers the viral load down to undetectable levels. This decreases the chances of transmitting the virus to sexual partners who are HIV negative. This doesn’t mean that the virus is completely gone, but the viral load is below what a lab test can detect.

Larry Kramer had played a key role in bringing attention to this deadly virus that was killing his community. In 1983 he was interviewed by Jane Pauly of the same Today show about "A-I-D-S" (as she put it), much like Sheen was today. It was at a time when health professionals actually knew very little about the virus. "We can’t even get the mayor of New York City to acknowledge publicly that there’s a health emergency," Kramer explained some 32 years ago. "There’s no question in my mind, if this were happening to you and the white, straight middle class community it would have been attended to a long time ago."

Doctor Harold Jaffe joined them on the show from the Center For Disease Control, and offered the one single narrative that was crucial for straight white America to allow them to dismiss this virus. He explained that those who were at highest risk of contracting "AIDS" were homosexual men with a large number of anonymous sex partners. The public could rest easy, while reinforcing their negative beliefs of homosexual culture; it was the story they needed to ignore a plague.

Perhaps this narrative validates their heteronormative values, which could explain why it has become such an integral part of straight culture. Today in the UK, the horrors of "chemsex" parties have recently emerged in mainstream media with stories in the Independent and The Guardian about gay men gathering to inject synthetic drugs into their system, and have risky sex for days on end. These men are contracting and spreading HIV and other STIs, or so the story goes.

Matt Cain of the Independent admitted that little research had been conducted into "chemsex" and that there were no statistics about the number of men involved. He still had the nerve to defend the notion that "more and more" gay men were participating, as though it has become commonplace within our community, which it has not. Even if he had concrete stats though, and this were true: that the majority of gay men were injecting drugs at sex parties organized on Grindr, and they were spreading HIV, that would be a serious drug problem, not a gay problem and it should be labeled as such. Otherwise, it’s just homophobic.

The Telegraph was the voice of reason on this issue. In an article titled, Chemsex: The Alarming New Trend Of 72 Hour Drug-Fuelled Sex Sessions, Dr. Richard Ma of the Royal College of GPs’ Sex Drugs Group explained, "Chemsex is a rapidly emerging pattern of drug use, not just amongst men who have sex with men as often assumed, but heterosexual patients as well."

According to the Health Protection Agency, there are approximately 100,000 people in the UK living with HIV, and one in five are undiagnosed. In 2012 there were 2,880 new HIV infections through heterosexual sex, 45% of the total.

The CDC reported that almost 92,613 Americans with AIDS who were infected through heterosexual sex have died since the epidemic began, including an estimated 4,550 in 2012 alone.

Charlie Sheen has now been written into this narrative with a tale that will allow the general public to overlook these statistics. The New York Times did a wonderful job at painting him as an erratic and irresponsible narcissist, perhaps as a way to justify his diagnosis. In any event, they skillfully highlighted his financial desperation, his hiring of prostitutes and his "drug-fueled public meltdown."

Nearing the end of the on-air interview with Sheen, Lauer reads a tweet from one, Jack Jason: "I’ve always liked Charlie Sheen, funny guy. Feel sorry for him, but his lifestyle kinda left him open for something like this." Sheen didn’t deny it but later added, "If there was one guy on this planet to contract this, that’s going to deliver a cure, it’s me. It’s me. I mean, seriously."

So many things have been written about Charlie Sheen, so many judgments passed about his lifestyle choices but there is a general sentiment in the media that something revolutionary has happened. As the New York Post wrote: "He introduced America to the impressive range of treatment options and procedures now available for the 37 million people living with HIV across the globe." To this, I say, "No, he did not!" It was the brave public health advocates over the last 34 years that did this. The problem is, nobody was listening.

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