This article was published on August 23rd, 2020
HIV/AIDS has been in the cultural zeitgeist for well over forty years, and over the years it has affected families, communities, and beyond. Those living with the disease have had to disclose their status to friends and loved ones and the celebrities that we love have also had to come to terms with the illness as well, some publicly disclosing their status, while others died with the secret for fear of the repercussions.
In current times, more celebrities are sharing their HIV status with the public in an effort to raise awareness and remove the stigma associated with the virus. In this article, HomoCulture, has compiled a list of some of the icons and celebrities that have lived – or are living – with HIV.
Jonathan Van Ness
As one of the stars on the massively popular reboot, Netflix has presented Jonathan Van Ness to millions of new fans as one of the Fab Five on Queer Eye. For the release of his memoir Over the Topin September 2019, Van Ness chronicled his past of sexual assault, drug addiction, and living with HIV in The New York Times. He stated:
“When Queer Eye came out, it was really difficult because I was like, ‘Do I want to talk about my status? And then I was like, ‘The Trump administration has done everything they can do to have the stigmatization of the LGBT community thrive around me.’ I do feel the need to talk about this.”
His candor and openness about living with the disease has made him a role model for queer men and women worldwide.
This member of the Brat Pack was one of the biggest bad boys of the 80s, with his acclaimed performances vying for headlines with his off-screen misbehavior. Sheen revealed his HIV status in 2015 after a slew of lawsuits and his termination for the successful CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men. Upon the admission of his positive status, he also started that he is currently on antiretroviral medication and undetectable. By many estimates, Sheen’s disclosure was viewed as more of an effective HIV awareness campaign than any conventional efforts.
The collective sports world stopped on a dime in 1991 when Magic Johnson, one of the greatest NBA players ever, announced that he was living with HIV. The revelation sent shockwaves throughout the black community and professional sports, and 30 years later, Johnson remains an activist that educates people on his status and how he is a man living with the virus with a positive attitude on effective medications.
In Hollywood circles, Rock Hudson’s homosexuality was an open secret, but the general public viewed the star as the epitome of 50s-era male machismo. His AIDS diagnosis and death in 1985 from AIDS-related issues was a shock to his fans and at the time of his death, the true reasons for his death were covered up in the media. After his death, his co-star and friend Elizabeth Taylor devoted the rest of her life to advancing AIDS causes, forcing many in Hollywood to tackle the issue directly and raise money for research.
Genderqueer hip hop artist Mykki Blanco caused waves in the music industry in June 2015 when he revealed he has been HIV+ since 2011. Through his social media, the artist reached to his fans: “Fuck stigma and hiding in the dark, “No more living a lie.”
Blanco went further, challenging AIDS organizations to cease tokenism and represent artists of color. Since posting his stance, Blanco has raised awareness around the National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness organization.
As the frontman of the internationally acclaimed rock band Queen, Freddie Mercury lived his life as a bisexual artist but did not reveal his HIV+ status until 1991, one day before he died from complications. Mercury tested positive in 1987 and the hit film Bohemian Rhapsody chronicled his life and the struggles he faced on the world stage.
During the 80s, Carangi was one of the most recognizable faces on runways and fashion magazines, appearing on the cover of Vogue and Cosmopolitan on both sides of the Atlantic. Her star trajectory was cut short with her untimely death in 1986 from complications from HIV after battling an addiction to heroin. Portrayed by actress Angelina Jolie in the HBO biopic Gia, her career paved the way for supermodels of the 90s like Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford.
The world renown artist burst onto the commercial art scene in New York City during the 80s, known for his graffiti dancing figures that appeared everywhere from sidewalks to Adidas apparel. Haring was open about his diagnosis and after his death in 1990 from AIDS, the Keith Haring Foundation worked – and still does today – to support organizations that work in HIV/AIDS prevention and eduction.
One of the first hip hop artists to achieve mainstream success as co-founder of the group N.W.A., Eazy-E pioneered the rap genre with one of the first multi-platinum albums in the genre. After revealing his status in 1995, he died one month later at only 31 years old. The revelation significantly affected the music industry, with hip hop lovers educating themselves about the disease after Eazy-E appeared on the covers of Vibe, Jet, and Newsweek.
With several hit songs that are considered quintessential disco, Sylvester paved the way as a flamboyant singer and performer that defied the conventional. He died in 1988 from complications from AIDS, but before his death, during an interview, he spoke out against the myths surrounding the disease in the Los Angeles Times:
“It bothers me that AIDS is still thought of as a gay, white male disease. The Black community is at the bottom of the line when it comes to getting information, even when we’ve been so hard hit by this disease. I’d like to think that by going public myself with this, I can give other people courage to face it.”
Trinity K. Bonet
RuPaul’s Drag Race has taken the art of drag to the mainstream, as well as the performers that make up the show. As a contestant during the sixth season of the show, Trinity K. Bonet gained a following for impeccable covers of iconic singers. Diagnosed in 2012, Bonet went public during the show and in an interview with NewNowNext stated she wanted to come forward “so that I could help someone else going through the same thing. And I wanted my fans to understand that their idols aren’t superheroes. You can go through what I’m going through and not be scared.”
The tennis legend, who battled racism in a sport that was predominantly white for decades, revealed his diagnosis in 1992, a few months after Magic Johnson. The first man of color to win the prestigious Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles, Ashe’s omission was revolutionary. He created the Arthur Ashe Endowment for the Defeat of AIDS shortly thereafter and raised the profile of those living with the disease within the black community and beyond.
The consummate performer and elite pianist captivated audiences for decades worldwide, mounting a showstopping residence in Las Vegas for years. However, the star kept his AIDS diagnosis quite until his death in 1987. His refusal to come out as homosexual and his HIV status were in part because of his fear of losing endorsements and fans during his heyday in the industry. His legacy as a showman remain legendary and a biopic about his life starring Michael Douglas brought his story to a new generation of fans.
Mixing Nigerian music, with element of jazz, funk, and other genres, the artist known simply as Fela took world music to the four corners of the earth. As a political activist, he used his artistry to critique the Nigerian government and its lack of investment in the health and education of its people. His death in 1997 changed the continent of Africa forever, with many nations moving to adopt measures to upend the miseducation of the general public about HIV and AIDS.
The Arquette family is one of the most well known in Hollywood, and Alexis Arquette’s career as an actress and performer set him apart from his siblings, particularly his platform of bringing awareness to the trans community at a time when there were few in the public eye. Struggling to find work as a trans performer, Arquette was vocal about the indifference in Hollywood and her death in 2016 was a catalyst for change that many trans artists reap the benefits from today.
During the 80s Greg Louganis was one of the world’s biggest athletes, winning five Olympic gold medals as a diver at the 1984 and 1988 Games. His career came to a controversial end after injuring his head during a dive at the 1988 Summer Olympics. At the time, he had not disclosed his sexual orientation or his HIV status and in a documentary, he noted that he “never got a Wheaties box,” as his orientation “didn’t fit their wholesome demographic.” Louganis’ disclosure paved the way for other Olympic artists to come out, including Ji Wallace, a gay Australian gymnast that came out as positive and acknowledged Louganis as his inspiration. Today, Louganis continues to advocate for HIV and LGBT causes.
MTV revolutionized television with the reality series The Real World, and Pedro Zamora was part of the San Francisco cast as an openly gay man battling HIV and the stigmas that surround the disease. After being diagnosed in 1989, Zamora used his platform on The Real World to educate Americans in a modern way. Viewers followed him until his death in 1994 at the age of 22, one day after the last episode aired on the network.
The influential choreographer established the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater in 1958 in an effort to expand the Black American cultural experience and his decades long work earned him a place at the Kennedy Center ceremony for his contributions to the arts. He died a year later from AIDS-related complications at the age of 58. His legacy lives on today, and it has recently been announced that a biopic is currently in the works about his illustrious life.
All of these celebrities contributed in some way to elevating awareness to HIV and AIDS-related issues. Through their artistry, they put the disease on the map and removed the stigma surrounding those living with the virus.