AIDS Stories Matter
Panel Explores How Hollywood Should Take on HIV/AIDS
by Larry Buhl
On the evening before World AIDS Day, a panel of doctors, actors and Hollywood storytellers explored how the entertainment industry, which has played a big role since the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, can now play a role in ending it.
The panel was hosted by the union’s LGBT Committee and the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. Introducing the panel, SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris said she looks forward “to the day when we can celebrate there being no more AIDS World Days.”
Carteris also praised Elizabeth Taylor for her courage and determination in fighting for funding for HIV/AIDS research in the 80s and 90s, “at a time when others were paralyzed with fear, offering care and love to those in need.”
Taylor’s granddaughter, Naomi Wilding, said that “this industry is uniquely engaged to educate,” and that it was her grandmother’s “dream to see the end of the AIDS epidemic.”
Managing Director of the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation Joel Goldman introduced the panel by recalling that in the early, most terrifying days of the crisis, it was the entertainment industry that helped educate the public.
“Films like And the Band Played On, An Early Frost, Philadelphia, they helped humanize AIDS for everyone,” he said.
Dr. Michael Gottlieb, who in 1981 became the first physician to describe the new disease that became known as AIDS, opened the panel discussion with some sobering news.
“When people hear what I do for a living, they say, ‘oh that’s still a thing?’ The fact is we haven’t seen a reduction in new infections in the United States in twenty years. According to a 2014 UNAIDS report said that sixty-one percent of AIDS in the world is in ten countries. The U.S. is number 9 on the list. We haven’t figured it out.
Doctor-turned-TV writer/producer Neal Baer spoke on his experience creating characters with
HIV/AIDS on ER and Law & Order: SVU) and maintained that the power of storytelling can provoke social change, even in small ways.
“In all the movies Joel mentioned, everyone died [of AIDS],” Baer said. “At the time, in the early 90s I wanted to show that a character could be happy, healthy and living with HIV.”
Regarding the legacy of the character of ER’s Jeanie Boulet, “it opened people’s eyes and hearts. I think that’s how change can come about. By telling these stories, and making it clear that her character wasn’t going to infect other people. That was reflecting the battles going on in the country.”
Tarell Alvin McCraney, story writer for the new coming-of-age film Moonlight, pointed out racial disparities among who gets HIV/AIDS and who is portrayed with HIV/AIDS in TV and film.
McCraney, whose mother died of AIDS, said, “illness is part of the human condition and must be part of storytelling.”
McCraney said he saw the effectiveness of the health care system when he lived in London and now worries about how the new U.S. administration will affect HIV/AIDS policies and health care funding. “I think those who are most vulnerable [to HIV/AIDS] are about to become even more vulnerable,” he said.
Chandi Moore, an HIV and trans activist who appeared in the I Am Cait series with Caitlyn Jenner, recalled a scene in which HIV/AIDS was discussed was edited out of the show.
Moore said the industry can and should do more to reach African Americans and tell their stories, a sentiment echoed by the rest of the panel. She added that anyone sexually active should be on PrEP, though she acknowledged that it was not easy to access and afford for many in lower-income communities.
“There are some doctors who won’t prescribe PrEP because they think it will make the users
more promiscuous,” Gottleib noted.
Actress Jaime Pressly shared how she became a lifelong HIV/AIDS activist after her closeted (and favorite) uncle died of AIDS in the early 1980s.
“To this day the death certificate of my uncle it says he died of pneumonia, which was
technically true. But he died of AIDS.”
Pressley added that she wasn’t allowed in the hospital room where he lay dying. “They thought you could catch it through the air, but there are still people who think that way.”
Due to illness, actor and activist David Arquette had to leave the event early, but he told the audience that he wanted to attend to honor the life of his sibling, Alexis Arquette.
Alexis, born Robert and known for gender transitioning as well as acting talent, died in September at the age of forty-seven. It was not well known that she was HIV positive until after her death.
Larry Buhl is a radio news reporter, screenwriter, and novelist living in Los Angeles.