The medical advancements surrounding HIV treatment and prevention have been extraordinary. With access to proper health care, those living with HIV are incapable of transmitting the virus, and PrEP, a once-a-day pill, reduces one's risk of getting HIV through sex by 99 percent.
Pop culture hasn't yet caught up to reflect this new reality and the depictions of those living with HIV remain stuck in the '80 and '90s, with recent examples like It's A Sin and Pose. These great strides we've made are nearly invisible and subsequently, the stigma and misconceptions around HIV have remained high. In a study conducted last year, GLAAD found that respondents experienced a sizable level of discomfort when interacting with people who are living with HIV. Fifty-three percent of non-LGBTQ+ people surveyed said they'd be uncomfortable interacting with a medical professional who had HIV and 44 percent said they'd be uncomfortable getting a haircut from a person living with HIV.
"I grew up being in love with narratives and stories about queer people living with HIV from Angels in America to Rent. These are movies that I saw myself in," says Jared Frieder, the writer and director of Three Months. "But very few people had continued that conversation into the modern era where when you have access to medical care, HIV's no longer a death sentence. People live long lives. They fall in love. They pursue their dreams."
This is the world Frieder's created in Three Months: It's a modern HIV narrative, one we're desperately in need of.
Just as he's graduating high school in 2011, Caleb (played by Troye Sivan) learns that he's been potentially exposed to HIV and must now wait three months for the test results to come back. Along the way, avoiding overly didactic tropes, he learns about how much has changed for those living with HIV since Pedro Zamora was on TV in The Real World: San Francisco. Caleb watches Zamora throughout the film, one of the first out gay men living with HIV that the public got to see and know, and the message is clear: This is not the same virus it once was. The tools now exist that allow you to live a long and healthy life with HIV.
Jared Frieder joins the LGBTQ&A podcast this week to talk about his film, Three Months (premiering February 23rd on Paramount+), the nine years it took to get it made, and why it's vital that we let people know that "when you have access to medical care, HIV is no longer a death sentence."
You can listen to Jared Frieder on the LGBTQ&A podcast and read excerpts below.
Jeffrey Masters: What made you want to tell a modern HIV story and specifically anchor it in young people? The two main characters are 18. Jared Frieder: I grew up being in love with narratives and stories about queer people living with HIV from Angels in America to Rent. These are movies that I saw myself in, but very few people had continued that conversation into the modern era where when you have access to medical care, HIV's no longer a death sentence. People live long lives. They fall in love. They pursue their dreams. And now we have to really have a hard discussion about the stigma and the shame around the disease.
Growing up in Florida, in the public school system, I was not educated in the modern state of what people living with HIV had to deal with and how we had progressed so much medically, in terms of pharmaceuticals. I had to unlearn that and reteach myself how it is today and I wanted to create a movie that could affect young people.
JM: In the movie, Caleb shares his potential exposure with his best friend. This was an event that you also went through, which inspired the story. Did you share it with anybody? JF: My parents. I called them the next day, and they flew to New York and they put me up in a hotel with them and they just clutched me until it was over. They were so compassionate and amazing.
And it's so funny. I really want to make it clear when I talk about the movie that Caleb's parents are not my parents. The stuff that Caleb goes through with Orthodox Judaism in his life and with his mom is based on just people I knew growing up and in college who didn't have the family situation that I had and weren't as lucky as I was.
But yeah, my parents, my roommates, my friends, it was finding that support system of the people who will be there for you no matter what and clinging to them like hell, which I also think is a part of growing up both as a gay person, but as any person and just finding your tribe and letting them support you when things get tough.
JM: How did you think about what you wanted to show when portraying teenage sex lives on-screen? JF: We worked really fucking hard on nailing the tone of the sex scene and the ways that we express queer intimacy on camera. First of all, they're going through a situation where they don't know their HIV status, so I didn't want to show an exchanging of fluids because I wanted to be responsible.
I'm also a big fan of, especially for queer people, sex is how you define it. It's not something that is prescriptive that you need to follow along some standard or some idea of what sex should be, whether it's penetrative or anal or whatever it is, that sex is a physical intimacy. So when Caleb says "define sex," that was a really purposeful way for him to put how they could be intimate with one another physically.
But I also wanted to lean into the "Yeah, they're still horny gay teens" and so the button of the scene where they're masturbating is not something you would normally see. It was hopefully romantic, hopefully, humorous and relatable. It was a very choreographed moment of the film.
JM: The movie portrays sexuality and family in a complicated way. The character has no shame around his queerness, but that didn't translate to his mother accepting that about him. JF: It's very complicated. It's like, you know you're OK with it because you are OK with it, or are you pretending to be OK because you want to fake it till you make it? Deep down, behind the humor and behind the rebelliousness and the charm, there is a part of him that still is imbued with the tiny seed of shame that his mom put in his brain. It never really goes away. It just doesn't and you learn how to deal with it. Shame to me is like grief where the acceptance comes and the hole in you gets smaller, but it's always there
I find that the same things that I felt shame about and was afraid of at the age of 12 are the exact same things that I'm afraid of, and feel shame about now. I just know that there's a bigger world and I know that sometimes because I feel something, it doesn't mean that it's true.
JM: The character of the mother also has this view of HIV that is very rooted in how it was in the '80s and it's not necessarily her fault. She doesn't know what she doesn't know. JF: She is the antagonist, but I don't think she's the villain of the story because I think she's deeply afraid. I think she's surrounded by fear and a lack of education and she loves her son, but she feels trapped and she doesn't know how to accept him or educate herself.
Amy Landecker, who plays his mom, is so gifted. I'm so grateful that she took this role because she's not the most likable character, but it's the pivotal important sequence in the film. It's the climax and she humanized her. Of course, she still sucks and she's not operating from a place of love or compassion or knowledge, but she's heartbroken and you feel that. I really wanted people to feel that conflict in her.
Three Months premieres on February 23 on Paramount Plus.
You can listen to the full LGBTQ&A interview with Jared Frieder on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. LGBTQ&A is The Advocate's weekly interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Past guests include Pete Buttigieg, Laverne Cox, Brandi Carlile, Billie Jean King, and Roxane Gay. New episodes every Tuesday.