Earlier this year, I became my company’s PrEP cheerleader. I went in search of information and answers and advice, talking to HIV organization leaders, educators, scientists, doctors, and gay men around the country. I was disturbed by the lack of information and the misinformation. Most alarmingly, I had heard from gay and bi guys, those in primary relationships and those on the circuit party cycle alike, who didn't want to go on PrEP because they didn’t want everyone to think they were sluts.
I started talking about PrEP, and so did my team at The Advocate and HIV Plus — actually at all of Here Media. Someone on Facebook even called me a “Truvada whore” (as someone married for 23 years, I just wish I had time to fulfill that “whore” title). It was my first public shaming from the loudest opponents of PrEP.
Which is why The Advocate began this 31 Days of PrEP initiative, to examine the science, bust the myths, and get gay and bi guys and trans women talking about PrEP. The idea was not to convince everyone to run out and get a prescription but to create a place where it’s safe for people to ask, Is PrEP right for me?
What I knew we needed was a gay male celebrity who would come out about using PrEP. I’ve heard from doctors in Los Angeles that the rate of PrEP adoption among the more affluent gays is ever increasing. Now, I know the preponderance of gay and bi men living in Hollywood, working in television, film, or even music, and the affluent men who are even power players in the entertainment industry. I’ve interviewed so many of them over the years. And I know the power that is held by each celebrity, how much weight the public gives to anything they say.
Even when celebrities say crazy things (um, Jenny McCarthy, I’m talking about you) they can influence tens of thousands of followers in a movement that affects the health of whole swaths of people. When a half dozen male celebrities talk publicly about prostate exams, the rate of men having them goes up nationally. In fact, this is called the Katie Couric Effect by scientists, since colonoscopies went up 20 percent after Couric underwent a live, on-air colonoscopy on Today during its weeklong cancer awareness campaign. In Australia, retired AFL star Sam Newman encouraged prostate cancer screening on 60 Minutes in 2008 and, according to Prostate.org, 40,000 men took his advice. It reports that "for the year before Newman’s story was broadcast, the average monthly number of PSA tests was 72,064. In April 2008, it was 107,633." Kylie Minogue’s breast cancer diagnosis had a similar impact.
A 2005 study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute,reported that over half of adults surveyed in the U.S. had seen or heard celebrity endorsements of cancer screening tests, and more than 25 percent of those who had seen or heard an endorsement reported that it made them more likely to undergo the promoted screening.
Bottom line: When celebrities speak out about health issues, it affects all of us. I believe the same sort of awareness needs to happen for PrEP.
So I sought out a number of single gay celebrities to see if anyone would come out about using PrEP. Nobody would. I could hear their publicists shaking their heads vehemently over the phone. It was too controversial, they said. "He doesn’t know anything about it," "that’s private," and "he doesn’t need to take anything like that" were all responses I heard from publicists. One even asked, "You’ve heard about all this slut shaming stuff, right?"
So I tried a new tactic: find a huge celebrity endorser of PrEP, just someone who says, “I support other people using it.” Again, this was a dead end.
So I reached out to one particular celebrity and told him, “Dude, I’m hitting a wall. I’m reaching out to you because I thought if anyone would do it, you would.” And he came back and said, “I’m not on PrEP because I’m in a relationship and we’re monogamous, but I hear from young guys all the time who are finding out they have HIV now and I want to help stem the tide." So we agreed that he would go on PrEP and document the experience and then tell the world through The Advocate. In the end, though, that story never ran.
He backed out, and I don’t blame him. The pressure on gay guys in Hollywood — everywhere, really — to fit into molds is immense. We like to talk about guys getting married now, but we can’t talk about their sex lives. And to discuss PrEP is to talk about men’s sex lives. It affects you and your partner, and you have to admit to a whole host of issues that we know are real: 50,000 people are getting HIV each year, and a majority of them are gay and bisexual men or other men who have sex with men.
If we can’t talk about butt sex, about tops and bottoms, about sex outside relationships, sex inside relationships, condoms, and STIs, we can’t talk about PrEP.
I’m not going to say who this guy was. I’m not going to name the countless celebs I reached out to. I hope to God this doesn’t incur a number of public “It wasn’t me!” statements, because the entire point of this project was not to shame anyone. I think this celeb genuinely wanted to do good by leading where nobody had but realized he was about to shoulder a lot of shaming and stigma for an issue that he really didn't need to take on in the first place.
But at this point, just as AIDS was all our issue in 1984, PrEP is all our issue 30 years later. We’ve had some leaders, politicians, and great guys come out of the PrEP closet this year, and I laud them, especially those who got dumped on the minute they did.
Still, the stigma now runs so deep around PrEP, I hope we won't be waiting forever for a gay celebrity or major public figure to come out and say, "Yes, I’m taking PrEP." Let's face it: Celebrities have a huge impact on our culture, whether we like it or not. We need a Magic Johnson moment for the 21st century, where someone's reality destigmatizes this HIV prevention effort for what it is: necessary preventive medication for some people, no different than other forms of pre-exposure prophylaxis, like malaria prevention drugs.
"I wish that all who enjoy the love of the queer community — along with our money — would see that HIV has never stopped being a crisis for us,” says Jeton Ademaj, a longtime PrEP advocate, the loudest voice of Safer Barebacking in ACT UP New York. “HIV is spreading among young queers and trans* worse than ever before. PrEP is the most powerful tool an HIV-negative person can use to protect themselves from HIV, but stigma from within our very own community is holding us back! The same stigma used to crush the spirit of HIV-positive people has now been turned on HIV-negative people — for trying to stay HIV negative."
Ademaj is a Bronx-born queer man who lives in Harlem with his husband and has been pushing for PreP for five years now, long before me. He's asking what I think we should all be asking today: “Who will stand up for our community? Who will stand up for PrEP? With celebrity comes power; with power comes responsibility. We need you."