December 1 marks World Aids Day, and we’re heading into the 40th year of the AIDS epidemic. I’d originally planned to write a retrospective about HIV/AIDS on television. Which like any social issue/representation piece would have ended with a “And where do we go from here?” So, the more I thought about it, I realized it might be more useful to take a look back at the representation I remember seeing when I was younger. What stories did I, a person who didn’t actively seek out content featuring people living with HIV/AIDS, come across? Which characters stuck out in my mind? Full disclosure: I consumed a lot of queer stories, and those two histories and realities are inextricably linked, so maybe I did see more storylines than other American populations. Anyhoo, by approaching this piece this way, I’m trying out a study of representation in practice rather than in the best-case scenario.
Angel in the Bay Area
I came up in the safer-sex era in the fairly liberal San Francisco Bay Area. Our sex-ed was fairly comprehensive, and I was aware of HIV/AIDS at least as early as the sixth grade. But as any media student knows, real facts and statistics don’t mean squat until you know people — or characters — who
humanize contextualize “an issue” into …”life.” Now, I’m sure I saw Philadelphia and a few other tragic queer stories about HIV/AIDS. However, the first time I actively engaged with characters living with HIV/AIDS was HBO’s Angels in America as a high school senior. And that was only thanks to a very dedicated, angry teacher who did everything he could to teach us queer literature.
We studied Tony Kushner‘s seminal play on an extracurricular level — my teacher couldn’t get it on the actual curriculum. Thinking back on it, I’m heartened to remember that the classroom was filled. Sure, AP Lit students are overachievers. But, they’re busy overachievers. My teacher interwove his teaching of the play with his personal history of the epidemic. Those few weeks studying the play forged a life-long love: I wore out my DVD copy of the HBO production, have seen countless staged productions and own a text copy of the play that moves with me, country to country.
Where would I be without Degrassi?
So, Degrassi. I’ve never outgrown this Canadian gem of an after-school special. Anyway, in the fourth season of the show’s The Next Generation iteration, out gay character Marco del Rossi (Adamo Ruggerio) organizes a blood drive. Unfortunately, he himself is barred from actually donating. He’s not HIV+, but of course, outdated laws banning men who have sex with men from donating blood are based on fears of HIV/AIDS. Perhaps what stood out to me more than anything was that there wasn’t the usual little bow of happy acceptance at the end. Marco couldn’t convince the nurse to let him give blood because Degrassi is a show that does play within certain limits of reality.
That was neither the first nor last time that Degrassi dealt with an HIV storyline. Season 7 of TNG introduces Griffin Pierce-Taylor (Nathanial Stephenson), a straight Black man with HIV, who ends up dating one of the show’s main characters. I think this was particularly noteworthy for me, as I’d never seen an HIV+ cis-hetero character on television. I do want to put a pushpin into the fact that Griffin is a POC. We’ll get back to that in just a sec. So … Griffin. I think it’s pretty darn awesome that he was in an (interracial) serodiscordant sexual relationship. But there was some weird stuff about his girlfriend finding out about his status by snooping through his things and only being OK with it because he was “born that way.” Still, firsts tend to stick with you.
Okay, okay. I am gonna talk statistics
Beginning in the aughts, but especially after, people living non-tragically with HIV and AIDS became slightly more commonplace on my TV screen. Mondo Guerra on Project Runway. Saul on Brothers & Sisters. Eddie on Looking. Oliver on How to Get Away with Murder. Horrifying random day players on Law & Order: SVU who deliberately spread HIV … wait … no that one was bad. At first, I wondered if maybe the pattern I was seeing was just due to my TV preferences. But, some Googling has shown me that most HIV+ characters on TV are queer, POC or QPOC.
And, yes, that does seem to reflect real-life statistics in the US. But, there are all sorts of intersectional identities at play when discussing risk factors for HIV, and it’s disingenuous to attribute the virus to primarily gay men of color. Besides, representation on TV shouldn’t even primarily be about risk factors. I feel silly even having to type this, but people living with HIV/AIDS deserve to feel seen. So, the answer isn’t fewer of the characters we currently have, but more of them and more of the ones we don’t. Oh, look. I ended with a “Where do we go from here?” anyway.