Hollywood & HIV: How Charlie Sheen May Become An Unlikely Stigma Breaker

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Riding a wave of success from films like Platoon, Young Guns and Wall Street, by 1988 it seemed actor Charlie Sheen had finally climbed out of the long shadows cast by father Martin Sheen and brother Emilio Estevez, to firmly establish himself as one of Hollywood’s elite.

That year he would also briefly cross paths with Ryan White, an Indiana teen who would help usher in a new understanding of HIV after being diagnosed in 1984 following a blood transfusion. Back then misinformation was rampant, as fear mongering led many to (incorrectly) assume that one could acquire the newly discovered disease from something as innocuous as a hug.

Initially kicked out of school after being labeled a potential “health risk,” in time White would assist in transforming public perception from that of an incurable “gay disease,” to a virus that truly doesn’t discriminate; regardless of lifestyle, gender or sexual preference.

On July 8, 1988 the two would be photographed together at a fundraiser for the “Ryan White National Fund” in Los Angeles. Just two years later White would succumb to complications from the disease, while Sheen would go on to support various HIV and AID’s charities, raising millions in aid. Meanwhile, his once prolific film and television career would soon become overshadowed by hard partying and tabloid fodder.

Nearly 30 years after the encounter Sheen would find himself on the other end of the spectrum, as he sat next to TODAY Show host Matt Lauer and revealed that the rumors were indeed true, one of Hollywood’s most notorious bad boys had contracted HIV.

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[ALSO READ: Charlie Sheen Admits to Being HIV Positive]

Despite admitting that he didn’t know how he had become infected, for most, a history of repeated drug use and promiscuity were more than enough to draw a conclusion. Once again, the insidious virus had proven that it doesn’t discriminate. Fame or wealth be damned.

It’s been over 25 years since Magic Johnson revealed his own status, yet for those not lucky enough to be backed by a celebrity platform, fighting public perception has continued to be an uphill battle. While some have already began questioning whether Sheen knowingly exposed past partners to the virus, others are also questioning whether he will pick up the torch left by White and run with it.

Explained Jonathan Scott, president and CEO of a Boston non-profit that works directly with those newly diagnosed with HIV and AIDS, “It doesn’t surprise me at all that he spent money to hide it. HIV began with horrific stigma, and even 30 years into the disease there is still stigma that is different from other diseases, such as breast cancer.”  

He added,“It was a huge milestone in the HIV epidemic when Magic Johnson came out, then Rock Hudson and Greg Louganis as a Olympic medalist. That was over 25 years ago. HIV may not be fatal and incurable as it was then, yet at the same time there are many people to help and much to do.”

But let’s be clear, this is bigger than Charlie Sheen.

For the estimated 1.2 million Americans, and 35 million individuals already infected with HIV worldwide, living with the virus has also meant battling the stigmas associated with it; as old prejudices and ongoing ignorance about the disease has continued to perpetuate a cycle of fear, rather than spark the candid conversations needed to help combat it.

“Denial is a tremendously powerful thing, and sometimes it’s easier, especially when you have no or minimal symptoms, it’s easier to deny things. People can work through that, but it can take some time. So it’s a normal response. But the problem is, if it lasts too long it’s against the interest of a patient,” advised Dr. Stephen Boswell, president and CEO of Boston’s Fenway Health.

With the CDC estimating that 1 in 8 Americans do not know that they are HIV positive, prevention and routine testing remain essential in combating the ongoing epidemic. Medical advances may have given hope to millions already affected, but there is still work to be done.

Arizona State University director and virology professor Dr. Bertram Jacobs recently made a poignant point, explaining that” We’ve gotten to a point of complacency when we think about HIV and AIDS. We don’t think about it because we don’t have people dying all the time like we did in the 1980s and early ’90s.”

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