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10 brave and brilliant role models who busted HIV stigma by speaking their truth

·10-min read

It has been almost 40 years since the AIDS epidemic started – and in that time, countless high-profile figures have busted stigma and prejudice by opening up about their HIV status.

It’s fair to say that a great deal has changed in the 40 years since the first cases of HIV and AIDS were detected. Antiretroviral medication means that people who have HIV can now live long, healthy lives, and PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) prevents people from contracting the virus to begin with.

But people with HIV still have to contend with stigma, discriminatory attitudes, and – in many cases – barriers to accessing healthcare.

That’s why it’s so significant every time a high-profile figure shares their HIV status. By doing so, they help show the world that it’s possible to live well with HIV – that the virus does not define you and that it is no longer the death sentence it once was.

To mark World AIDS Day, we take a look at 10 trailblazing famous faces who have shared their HIV status and helped shed years of stigma in the process.

1. Billy Porter

Billy Porter attends the 73rd Emmy Awards
Billy Porter attends the 73rd Emmy Awards

Pose star and fashion icon Billy Porter showed the world what it means to live with HIV in 2021 when he opened up about his status.

The actor revealed in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in May that he had been living with HIV for 14 years. The significance of that moment wasn’t lost on Pose fans, who had watched him playing Pray Tell, a HIV positive gay man in the 1980s, on the series.

Porter ultimately decided to go public about his HIV status after opening up to his mother about his status.

“HIV-positive, where I come from, growing up in the Pentecostal church with a very religious family, is God’s punishment,” Porter said at the time.

“I was trying to have a life and a career, and I wasn’t certain I could if the wrong people knew.

“It would just be another way for people to discriminate against me in an already discriminatory profession,” he said.

2. Jonathan Van Ness

Jonathan Van Ness beauty secrets
Jonathan Van Ness beauty secrets

Jonathan Van Ness quickly skyrocketed to fame as one of the Fab Five on Netflix’s reboot of Queer Eye – and it wasn’t long before they became a firm fan favourite.

In 2019, Van Ness opened up about their HIV status in an interview with The New York Times.

“It’s hard for me to be as open as I want to be when there are certain things I haven’t shared publicly,” Van Ness explained. “These are issues that need to be talked about.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Van Ness explained that they were diagnosed with HIV at the age of 25 after they fainted while working in a hair salon.

Writing in their memoir, Van Ness said: “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 stigmatisation of the LGBT community thrive around me. I do feel the need to talk about this.”

3. Trinity K Bonet

Trinity K Bonet at the Youth Pride Celebration in June 2021
Trinity K Bonet at the Youth Pride Celebration in June 2021

RuPaul’s Drag Race has helped bring queerness and drag into the mainstream – and season six star Trinity K Bonet also helped to dispel harmful myths about HIV.

Trinity first opened up about her status on her initial Drag Race run. She later appeared on All Stars – and she brought an important message about U=U, which refers to the scientifically proven fact that a person who is on effective treatment has an undetectable level of HIV in their bloodstream, which means they can’t pass it on to others.

During a segment called the Pink Table Talk, Trinity explained: “The thing about me when it comes to sex is my particular community, it’s very taboo when it comes to being open and honest about their status.

“Being a person who is openly HIV positive, for a long time I was a lot of secrets for a lot of people. But I’m nobody’s secret. I’m successful, I got my s**t together, I’m good in bed. I’m taking care of myself, I’m undetectable which is untransmittable.”

She continued: “There’s a lot of people out here who are not educated that you can be with someone who is HIV piste if they are undetectable and not catch the virus.”

4. Gareth Thomas

Gareth Thomas
Gareth Thomas

Former Welsh rugby captain Gareth Thomas had long been seen as a source of inspiration to LGBT+ people for the courage he displayed when he came out as gay – and that sense of admiration only grew when he revealed he was living with HIV in 2019.

Sadly, Gareth said at the time that he had been effectively forced to disclose his status after a tabloid newspaper discovered he had HIV. He decided to go public with his diagnosis to help “break the stigma” around the virus.

In a video shared on social media, Gareth spoke of the “shame” and “fear” that came with keeping his condition a secret.

“Now that you have that information, that makes me extremely vulnerable – but it does not make me weak,” Gareth said in the video.

“No, even though I’ve been forced to tell you this, I choose to fight and educate to break the stigma around this subject.”

The following year, Gareth told The Guardian that revealing his HIV status “felt much more shameful” than coming out as gay in rugby.

He also admitted that everything he knew about HIV when he was first diagnosed was “very historical, very past tense and very unfactual”.

5. Nathaniel Hall

It's A Sin star Nathaniel J Hall opens up on catching HIV at age 16
It's A Sin star Nathaniel J Hall opens up on catching HIV at age 16

In It’s a Sin, Nathaniel Hall played Donald, a young gay man who has contracted HIV – and the 34-year-old actor is living with the virus in real life too.

Hall opened up about his HIV diagnosis in an interview with Sky News, in which he revealed that he contracted the virus when he was just 16-years-old when he had sex for the first time.

“When I was offered the test, actually, I refused, because I just thought I couldn’t possibly have caught it,” Hall said.

“You know, I’m white, middle class, I was head boy at my school, I was like, it doesn’t happen to people like me, which is obviously a really ridiculous attitude to have because it can happen to a anyone.

“But, yeah, I think it really wasn’t on my radar and there was a denial there because of the fear.”

6. Javier Muñoz

Javier Munoz during the cast of 'Hamilton' 2016 Door Decorating Competition at Richard Rodgers Theatre.
Javier Munoz during the cast of 'Hamilton' 2016 Door Decorating Competition at Richard Rodgers Theatre.

When Javier Muñoz took over the role of Alexander Hamilton from Lin Manuel Miranda on Broadway, he was quick to open up about his HIV status – and he used the opportunity to deliver an important message.

Speaking to The New York Times in 2016, Muñoz revealed that he had been living with HIV since 2002 – and he explained that he is “undetectable”, meaning mediation has reduced the viral load in his bloodstream to such an extent that he can’t pass the virus on.

“I’m healthy, I’m strong and I’m very out about that because of the stigma still attached to it,” Muñoz said.

“I have this joke – if it’s funny or not funny, I don’t know – but the joke is that I have died several times already, and that’s how it feels.

“My life completely and drastically changed in 2002 when I was diagnosed with HIV, and then again last year with cancer. And you can’t unknow what you know. Life is not the same after that.

“But I’m alive, and I’m for all intents and purposes healthy and well. And I’m grateful for that.”

7. Magic Johnson

Magic Johnson
Magic Johnson

In 1991, HIV stigma was at its height – and the virus was still very much seen as a condition that afflicted gay men. That’s why it was so significant when NBA superstar Magic Johnson went public with his HIV status.

At a press conference, the sporting legend said: “I plan on going on living for a long time, bugging you guys like I always have. I guess now I get to enjoy some of the other sides of living.”

It has been 30 years since Johnson revealed that he was HIV positive – and he’s still shattering misconceptions about the virus by living his best life.

Speaking to CBS Sports in November, Johnson explained that the hardest part of contracting HIV was telling his wife Cookie, who he had only recently married. She was pregnant with their first child at the time.

“It’s still the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do in buy life,” he said.

8. Rock Hudson

Rock Hudson
Rock Hudson

In 1985, the world was left in shock when Hollywood heartthrob Rock Hudson announced that he had AIDS.

It was a seismic moment in the AIDS epidemic – he was the first major public figure to publicly disclose that he had contracted the virus.

Tragically, Rock Hudson didn’t live to see the dawn of effective treatment for HIV. He was diagnosed with the virus in 1984, years before scientists would perfect the antiretroviral medication that has saved countless lives since.

Hudson initially denied he had AIDS, but his decision to go public with his diagnosis in July 1985 as public speculation mounted about his health put a much-needed spotlight on the epidemic.

In October of that year, Hudson sadly died form AIDS related illnesses. He was 59-years-old.

9. Freddie Mercury

Freddie Mercury
Freddie Mercury

Another high-profile figure who tragically didn’t live to see the dawn of effective HIV treatment was Queen frontman Freddie Mercury.

The singer faced relentless speculation in the final months of his life about his health from tabloids – but he was always adamant he had not contracted HIV.

Just 24 hours before his death, Freddie finally announced publicly that he had AIDS – and that simple act was very important.

“Following enormous conjecture in the press, I wish to confirm that I have been tested HIV positive and have AIDS,” Freddie Mercury said in that statement.

“I felt it correct to keep this information private in order to protect the privacy of those around me.

“However, the time has now come for my friends and fans around the world to know the truth, and I hope everyone will join with me, my doctors and all those worldwide in the fight against this terrible disease.”

10. Gia Carangi

Portrait Of Gia Carangi
Portrait Of Gia Carangi

Gia Carangi was an American supermodel who appeared on the cover of Vogue and Cosmopolitan – but she tragically died at the age of 26 from AIDS related illnesses.

Too often, HIV and AIDS are seen as conditions that only affect queer men – but countless women across the world are living with the virus too, which is why it’s essential people like Gia are remembered.

Tragically, Gia developed a heroin addiction, and it is thought she likely contracted HIV from a contaminated needle. She was one of the first famous women to die from AIDS.

Gia hasn’t been forgotten – her story played out in the 1998 television film Gia, in which Angelina Jolie played the tragic supermodel.

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