We Are the Warriors


by David Waggoner

[dropcap]D[/dropcap]isclosure. First actor Danny Pintauro disclosed he was living with HIV. Now Charlie Sheen. It’s an odd word—“disclosure.” It seems so official, so legalistic. Don’t lawyers “disclose” evidence? The word seems unnecessarily linked to law and order, as if living with HIV was evidence of a criminal act.

Judging from comments on social media and some of the tabloid headlines, many still think of living with HIV as some sort of crime. Charlie Sheen had barely ended his interview with Today’s Matt Lauer before people jumped on the fear-and-loathing bandwagon. Jenny McCarthy, who played one of Sheen’s character’s girlfriends on Two and a Half Men, thought he should have been contractually obligated to disclose his serostatus to his on-screen partners. (Remember the hysteria around Rock Hudson having kissed Linda Evans on Dynasty? Have we learned anything in thirty years?) And here’s one pearl of wisdom from someone on Twitter: “Will they put Charlie Sheen in jail for attempted murder? Another Hollywood ‘star’ who gets to live by different rules.” People blasted: “Charlie Sheen Is HIV-Positive—Could His Exes Sue Him?” Apparently six of them plan to do so—emotional stress, fraud, and sexual battery are the charges being floated.

How revealing that an HIV “disclosure” is quickly followed with threats of punishment. For Sheen’s part, he claims to have disclosed his positive status to all of his partners before any sexual activity took place. In fact, some of the people to whom he disclosed reportedly returned the favor by blackmailing him for millions.

The real crime is the silencing that AIDSphobic individuals foist on those of us who are positive. The real crime is the stigma that prevents individuals from getting tested or engaging in care. The real crime is the criminalization of individuals living with HIV based on old and faulty science. The real crime is that, amid all of the animus that animated the frenzied conversations after Sheen’s disclosure, the point that Charlie is undetectable and therefore non-infectious might have gotten lost.

Thankfully, advocates were quick to take up his story as a teachable moment. With adherence to the right regimen of antiretrovirals, an individual can suppress the virus. It’s almost impossible to transmit the virus when undetectable. It’s very possible for someone who is positive to live nearly as long as someone who is negative. But that means staying on top of one’s health and taking advantage of the medications.

That’s some kind of justice. But we deserve something more than a better quality of life—we deserve a better quality of humanity. We deserve an emotionally supportive environment. We deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. We deserve to have our basic needs met. We deserve a world that welcomes us as the warriors we are.

Aileen Getty is one such warrior. In our cover story, the advocate (no stranger to tabloid hate) tells A&U’s Dann Dulin about what she has learned through her struggles: “You are enough. At all times preserve what’s authentic within you! We have the freedom to change our minds so long as we stay truthful.” I hope everyone in America and around the world reads her story and starts the healing process, or is emboldened to continue their healing process.

Now that I think about it, this World AIDS Day issue is teeming with warriors. Our Gallery features Avram Finkelstein, who helped us see that “Silence = Death.” Chael Needle interviews Andrea Johnson, a woman living with HIV and advocate who has asked other women to step forward, bravely, and show the world that living with HIV does not mean we stop living. And Chip Alfred interviews Damon L. Jacobs, a PrEP warrior intent on educating the masses about this new prevention tool.

Shooting at the walls of heartache, we are the warriors. Heart to heart we’ll win.

David Waggoner is Editor in Chief and Publisher of A&U, the first national HIV/AIDS magazine in the U.S.