Sadly, there are more than 1.1 million people in the United States that are HIV-positive and what’s scary is that 18% don’t even know that they are infected with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus infection), which can lead to AIDS. That’s almost one-in-five people who don’t know they are HIV-positive!
Today, December 1, 2013, marks the 25th anniversary of “World AIDS Day”, which was started in 1988 to raise awareness to the spread of HIV and the AIDS pandemic.
Here’s some sobering numbers for you: AIDS is still a problem, even if it’s now treatable. There were still 15,529 deaths in the U.S. from AIDS in the U.S. in 2010.
White gay and bisexual men are the groups with the highest new infection rates and black gay and bisexual men follow right behind.
However, here’s something that needs to be addressed and people need to wake up. While African-Americans make up 12% of the U.S. population, they account for 44% of new HIV cases in 2010/living with HIV. And, Hispanics account for 16% of the U.S. population, but make up 21% of the new HIV cases/people living with HIV.
We’ve come a long way in the past 32 years, but we have a long way to go.
Flashback to the spring and early summer of 1981. Doctors in New York and California started noticing that some of their young, gay patients were coming in with weakened immune systems and were developing pneumonia and cancer.
“The New York Times” published one of the first articles on this new disease that didn’t even have a name and was incorrectly labeled “GRID” (gay-related immune deficiency) in 1982. It was changed to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) once doctors realized that it didn’t only affect gay men.
The early 1980s was a scary time because there was so much that doctors didn’t know about this “gay cancer”, as it was also called. This led to fear and many misconceptions about who or how people could catch it.
Ryan White, an Indiana hemophiliac, contracted AIDS from a contaminated blood transfusion and he was diagnosed with the disease shortly after his 13th birthday during a partial-lung removal procedure.
His school refused to let him come back and the family was subjected to threats and a bullet was even fired into their living room forcing the family to leave Kokomo, Indiana.
Ryan died in April 1990 at the age of 18.
Before Ryan White was diagnosed with AIDS in late 1984, Reverend Jerry Falwell in the summer of 1983 called AIDS, the “gay plague”. He also made other ignorant and hateful comments about AIDS and gay people.
In the early-and-mid-1980s, a diagnosis of AIDS was an almost certain death sentence. Outside of large metropolitan cities, many in America still thought it was a strictly a disease that affected gay men.
In retrospective, that doesn’t seem illogical because President Ronald Reagan didn’t even mention AIDS publicly until 1987, six years after he began his presidency and AIDS went public!
While the President chose to or just remained silent on the topic, the nation’s started talking in the summer of 1985 when one of America’s biggest movie stars of the 1950s and 1960s startled the world when he admitted that he had AIDS.
Roy Scherer, Jr., who was born outside of Chicago, moved to Los Angeles in 1946 to become an actor after serving in the U.S. Navy in Philippines during World War II. His name was changed to Rock Hudson and he became a matinée idol and made several romantic-comedies, including a few with his dear friend, actress Doris Day.
Hudson was a heartthrob — a tall drink of water at 6’5″ — and the magazines loved him.
However, rumors that he was gay dogged him. When “Confidential” magazine threatened to out him in 1955, he got married that same year and then divorced in 1958.
In 1956, Hudson was nominated for an Oscar for his role in “Giant” that also starred Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. He worked steadily in movies and television through 1985 and his last role was on “Dynasty” as Daniel Reece, the love interest of Linda Evan’s character, Krystle Carrington.
While Hudson’s character was killed off in the spring of 1985, the gasp that could be heard around the world came months later, in July. Hudson appeared in a promo to promote his friend, Doris Day’s new television show.
The actor appeared thin and unhealthy. He spoke incoherently during the press event. This led to widespread speculation about his health. Days later he collapsed at a hotel in Paris, France, and his publicist, Dale Olson, denied that Hudson had AIDS and that he was suffering from inoperable liver cancer.
Four days later, on July 25, 1985, Olson admitted that Hudson had AIDS and that he had been diagnosed one year earlier and had been flying to Paris for treatments.
Hollywood freaked out over this revelation, including some on the set of “Dynasty”. However, it’s been reported that Linda Evans was not one of those people even though they shared intimate love scenes together.
At the time, some erroneously thought that you could contract AIDS through kissing. YOU CANNOT GET AIDS FROM KISSING! This is a perfect time for the facts about HIV and AIDS.
On October 2, 1985, Rock Hudson died at home in his sleep in Beverly Hills, California. He was 59.
Shortly before he died, Hudson sent a telegram to Commitment to Life, a Hollywood AIDS benefit, saying “I am not happy that I am sick. I am not happy that I have AIDS. But if that is helping others, I can at least know that my own misfortune has had some positive worth.”
Comedian Joan Rivers added, “Two years ago, when I hosted a benefit for AIDS, I couldn’t get one major star to turn out. … Rock’s admission is a horrendous way to bring AIDS to the attention of the American public, but by doing so, Rock, in his life, has helped millions in the process. What Rock has done takes true courage.” And, actress Morgan Fairchild said that “Rock Hudson’s death gave AIDS a face.”
HOLLYWOOD EDUCATING AMERICA THROUGH MOVIES
While health officials worked tirelessly in the 1980s and 1990s to educate the public about HIV/AIDS, activists staged protests at government offices to work harder to fund research and to find a cure.
Slowly, Hollywood came around and “An Early Frost” on NBC in November 1985 was the first movie to address AIDS.
34 million people tuned to see Aidan Quinn as a Chicago lawyer, who not only became ill with AIDS, but he also had to tell his parents (Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands) that he was gay. The movie earned 14 Emmy nominations, winning three.
While it was the most watched show of the night beating out football and “Cagney & Lacey”, NBC lost $500,000 in commercial revenue because some clients were scared away by the subject matter.
Here are some other incredible Hollywood movies and television movies or series that excel at telling the HIV/AIDS story.
“Longtime Companion” (1989) is one of my all-time favorite movies.
While it was the first wide-release theatrical movie to address AIDS, it only earned $4.6 million at the box office. It stars Campbell Scott, Mary-Louise Parker, and Bruce Davison, who earned a Best Supporting Oscar nomination.
It follows a group of New York City friends from the 1981 beginning of the AIDS pandemic and shows how they learned to live, fight, and die from the disease.
“And The Band Played On”, a 1993 HBO movie, is probably the best historical movie for you to learn about the history of AIDS without it sounding like a boring history lesson. The Emmy Award winning movie (it won three out of its 14 nominations) stars Matthew Modine, Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, Richard Gere, and Phil Collins.
And, the book was written by Randy Shilts, who was born in Davenport, Iowa.
In 1993, “Philadelphia” became the most profitable AIDS movie in Hollywood history earning $206.7 million (almost $77 million of that was from the U.S.).
Tom Hanks won an Oscar playing a closeted lawyer at a big law firm, who is given the company’s biggest case only to have them fire him when a partner sees a lesion on his forehead and he is hospitalized. He hires a homophobic, personal injury lawyer played by Denzel Washington.
Another touching small theatrical movie, “The Cure”, tells the story of Dexter, a Midwestern boy who befriends his latch-key neighbor, Erik, who’s a little older. Initially, Erik is afraid of Dexter and his disease. But, the boys form a close friendship when they decide to travel down the Mississippi River to New Orleans to find a rumored cure for AIDS.
Not all AIDS-related movie are dramas. “Jeffrey”, a 1995 film by funny man Paul Rudnick, made about $3.5 million at the box office and stars Steven Weber and Michael T. Weiss.
Weber is Jeffrey, a New York City man who is scared of catching AIDS, so he gives up sex and then he meets Steve, the man of his dreams only to find out that Steve is HIV-positive.
The movie features an all-star cast including Patrick Stewart, Olympia Dukakis, Sigourney Weaver, Nathan Lane, Christine Baranski, and Kathy Najimy.
The play, “Angels in America” blasted onto HBO in 2003 with a cast that included Al Pacino, Meryl Streep (playing four characters), Emma Thompson, Jeffrey Wright (also playing four characters), Mary-Louise Parker and Patrick Wilson. The almost six-hour series earned 21 Emmy nominations and 11 wins, including acting awards for Pacino, Streep, Parker, and Wright.
And, in 2014, Ryan Murphy, the man behind the award-winning series, “American Horror Story” and “Glee”, will be directing the Larry Kramer-penned, Tony Award-winning play, “The Normal Heart”.
The HBO movie stars Julia Roberts, Mark Ruffalo, Jim Parsons. Matt Bomer, and Taylor Kitsch, and focuses on the AIDS crisis in New York City in the early-1980s.
For those of you that don’t know him, Larry Kramer is and was one of the biggest health advocates in the history of HIV/AIDS and helped start the protest organization, ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), in early 1987.
“AND, THE ACADEMY AWARD FOR BEST ACTOR SHOULD GO TO…”
Matthew McConaughey for “Dallas Buyers Club”!
The movie is based on a true story. Ron Woodruff was a homophobic, hard-living, good ol’ Texas boy who loved his liquor, drugs, and women. In 1986, he was diagnosed with AIDS and told that he had 30 days to live.
He tried to get on the AZT trials that were being rushed onto the market to fight the AIDS pandemic. Since he was denied that opportunity, Woodruff started buying it on the black market. When he almost died, he came up with a plan to smuggle medications out of Mexico to try to stay alive. Since Ron couldn’t sell the drugs, he started a membership only “buyers club” to distribute the Food & Drug Administration-unapproved medication.
McConaughey, who plays Woodruff, lost about 50 pounds for the role and his co-star, Jared Leto, who plays transgender AIDS patient, Rayon, who befriends Woodruff, lost about 40 pounds for the role.
Both actors were electrifying and sold the story. After initially gasping at McConaughey’s first appearance in the movie, I was sold for the next two hours that both actors were HIV-positive people fighting for their lives, while the government dragged its feet.
If you lived through the 1980s and saw friends getting sick and dying, you saw those friends in Ron and Rayon. If you know people who have become HIV-positive in the past decade, where with medication, healthier living, diet, and exercise, it’s become a manageable disease, there’s a sense of relief that AIDS is no longer a certain death sentence.
MUSICIAN LEND A VOICE, TOO
Madonna, George Michael, Cyndi Lauper, the Pet Shop Boys, and many other musicians have recorded songs about HIV and AIDS and losing friends or lovers to the disease.
In 1986, Elton John was joined by Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder on “That’s What Friends Are For”. That Grammy Award-winning song reached #1 and raised over $3 million dollars for the American Foundation for AIDS Research, a nonprofit organization founded by some leading AIDS specialist and actress Elizabeth Taylor.
Six years later, Elton John founded the nonprofit organization, the Elton John AIDS Foundation. His 1992 hit, “The Last Song”, about a father and son reuniting before the son died of AIDS, was the first of Elton’s American singles to benefit his AIDS foundation.
While pop music embraced the fight against HIV/AIDS and lent a voice, it took the biggest name in country music almost twenty years ago to release a song that was controversial in that musical genre to put a heterosexual face to AIDS.
Typically, summer radio is filled with bubbly, fun songs. However, in 1994, Reba McEntire serviced “She Thinks His Name Was John” to country radio as the second single from “Read My Mind”. The song tells the story of a woman, who is dying alone of AIDS after an alcohol-fueled one night stand a few years earlier.
The song only reached #14 on the Billboard County charts. But, it opened eyes in a genre that was used to drinking songs, but not one with the horrors of a disease that affected a large number of gay men.
While things are changing, there’s still a long way to go in the fight against HIV and AIDS. And, we still need to educate people.
Back in 2010, Annie Lennon of the Eurythimics wore a “HIV Positive” shirt on “Idol Gives Back”. This prompted many to think that she was ill.
She replied, “I can tell you the good news is actually I am not. However, many people are. In fact, 22 million in sub-Saharan Africa are currently HIV positive. And I am wearing this in solidarity with them because it’s very hard when you are HIV positive to be open about your status and to be able to tell your family and your friends.”
You may not see many people these days wearing red ribbons to raise awareness, but more people than ever are getting infected with HIV. Last year, around the world, 2.3 million people were newly affected!
Since 1981, more than 636,000 people have died from AIDS in the United States. If those numbers don’t wake you up, try these:
On this “World AIDS Day”, remember those who have lost the battle with AIDS. Whether you know it or not, I can almost guarantee that you know someone who is HIV-positive or that you will in the future.
Abstaining from sex is what some tell you to do. That works. However, if you’re going to be sexually active, protect yourself. Use condoms!
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that “Latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, are highly effective in preventing the sexual transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.”
HIV and AIDS are preventable. Be safe. It’s not just a slogan!