While watching Charlie Sheen this morning on TODAY, all I could do is think about Magic Johnson.
When Johnson revealed that he was HIV positive, and thus, would immediately be retiring from the NBA at the advice of his doctors, Johnson said during the press conference, “Life is going to go on for me, and I’m going to be a happy man. When your back is against the wall, you have to come out swinging. I’m going to go on, going to be there, going to have fun.”
Johnson would make a brief return to basketball, and in 2011, revealed that he regretted that decision to leave basketball. Still, Johnson stayed true to the commitment he made in that 1991 presser. Life indeed went on for him as Johnson blossomed into a hugely successful entrepreneur, advocate and philanthropist. (Full disclosure: I am a recipient of his foundation’s Taylor Michaels Scholarship Program.)
And yet, more than two decades after Johnson and many other faces and names helped changed the way we look at HIV, the stigmas continue. I’m not comfortable with the reality that some sentiments I heard at the age of 6 remain in my 31st year of life. I’m equally bothered by the circumstances that led to Sheen’s disclosure.
Sheen did not come out willingly; he was pushed into it by way of being gossiped about in tabloids and being blackmailed by the people he allowed into his life.
Look no further than the National Enquirer whose cover story leads with “World Exclusive! Charlie Sheen Is HIV Positive — Inside His Shocking Diagnosis.” The story begins with “Decades of debauchery have finally caught up to Charlie Sheen.” Then there is TMZ, who reported details about Sheen leading into his announcement this morning.
Sheen revealed that he has known for four years that he was HIV positive. He also noted that he’s handed over millions of dollars to keep his status a secret. As a result of this interview, Sheen said, “I released myself from this prison today.”
But why he kept this in his personal cell for so long remains clear. The “tiger blood” jokes have already started. As have the comments about him associating with prostitutes – which further vilifies sex workers, who need greater access to prevention efforts than they do further condemnation and criminalization. Even in the Sheen interview, Matt Lauer asked him about the various laws across the country aimed at those with HIV/AIDS. The problem with that line of inquiry is that many of those laws are archaic, based on perceptions about the disease formed in the 1980s. But why didn’t Sheen or Lauer bring up the fact that these laws need to be adjusted so they’re not unfairly criminalizing those with the virus based on assumptions? This is a major failure for Sheen, who is there to bring awareness, and Lauer, who as a seasoned journalist bears some responsibility in not having done better research.
Plus, if Sheen already claimed that he has revealed his status to each of his sexual partners, why press him about laws that need revision in the wake of medical developments in treating the virus?
Thankfully, there were teachable moments by way of Sheen’s doctor, but too much of the conversation felt stagnant.
Make no mistake: I do not pity Charlie Sheen. It is hard to ever feel that empathetic towards a man with a history of violence against women. Nonetheless, he deserves better than what brought him to this interview. To gossip about his health is deplorable. To extort money from him in this manner is despicable. To continue to damn him and other people living with HIV points to lingering shaming tactics that ought to face certain death.
Already, USA Today has a Sheen-related gallery tied to the announcement. It’s entitled “A timeline of a troubled life.” Charlie Sheen will be fine. If anything, with Sheen saying he’s now no longer using drugs and drinking less, this might’ve arguably saved his life.
Some of Sheen’s behavior may have contributed to his infection, but this narrative further perpetuates the association of HIV/AIDS infection to promiscuity or carelessness. That is not always the case. To further push that narrative is dangerous to all of us.
We need to evolve on how we talk about HIV. By now, we should know that those infected are more than their infection. That this is not a death sentence. That it is not a form of punishment. That we needn’t shun people and impede them from living the full life medical breakthroughs have allowed. As much as we collectively claim to want to hold people accountable for their actions, the same should be true on how we discuss HIV.
It’s time to evolve.