National Enquirer

What The News About Charlie Sheen’s HIV Status Tells Us About America

For many straight people, the conversation about HIV/AIDS ended in the mid-90s.

This morning on the Today Show, actor Charlie Sheen sat down with Matt Lauer and disclosed the fact that he was HIV positive.

The Two and a Half Men star said he’s known about his status for about four years, but thought at first he had a brain tumor.

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“It is a hard three letters to absorb,” he told Lauer.

Sheen isn’t sure exactly how he contracted the virus: “I was doing a lot of drugs. I was drinking way too much. I was making a lot of bad decisions.”

danny pintauro

The interview was actually not that different from the one Who’s the Boss actor Danny Pintauro had with Oprah Winfrey a few weeks ago, in which he disclosed he was HIV-positive as well.

And yet, the two segments sparked very different discussions.

Related: AIDS Medication And Condoms Together Stop HIV Transmission Completely, Say Researchers

Pintauro, who has retired from acting and maintains a fairly low profile, is openly gay. He spoke to Winfrey about using meth and how it led him to make poor choices about his sexual health.

For gay men, Pintauro’s disclosure was not an unfamiliar one: HIV has become a part of our reality—something to be negotiated and managed. We inquire about viral loads, medications, safety and PrEP.

But Sheen’s news was a wake-up call of a different sort—the realization that most of straight America stopped paying attention to HIV at some point in the mid-90s. For them, HIV is still a deadly virus, interchangeable with AIDS.

In fact, Sheen revealed he’s been paying “millions” to blackmailers to keep his status quiet, because of the stigma that’s so common.

A People magazine headline screamed “Charlie Sheen Claims There Is Now Virtually No HIV in His Blood.”

Sheen’s doctor confirmed the actor has an “undetectable level of the virus” but the People story made it sound like he was claiming aliens had abducted him.

For the LGBT community, HIV is not an unknowable bugbear. There is still stigma, to be sure, but there’s less ignorance. With more than 1.2 million people in the U.S. living with HIV, it’s hard for us to be ignorant.

But the language used in mainstream publications was shockingly outdated.

The National Enquirer ran a headline about Sheen’s “AIDS Cover-Up,” with claims Sheen “slept with thousands of woman AND MEN!” and “hid the deadly virus for four years.”

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National Enquirer

They might as well have rerun a Rock Hudson cover from 1985.

While we’ve been rightly focused on education within the LGBT community, Sheen’s situation reminds us we also have to get back to educating the straight world.

Sheen said this morning, “with what we are doing today, others may come forward and say, ’Thanks, Charlie, for kicking the door open.'”

We never thought of Charlie Sheen as an activist, but if his disclosure begins a discussion about the reality of HIV/AIDS in the mainstream world then he has our thanks.

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.