The death of a young artist is never an easy thing to comprehend, especially when their star is on the rise — and especially if they die from HIV-related illnesses in the year 2017.
Michael Friedman, a beloved New York musical theater composer (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Fortress of Solitude, The Abominables) died in September from HIV-related complications. Following the death of the 41-year-old, those in the theater scene were stunned, and many were reminded of a time long passed when a generation of artists succumbed to AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s.
Most were shocked to discover that AIDS (or Stage 3 HIV) was still something to be concerned about in this day and age. As Michael Paulson from The New York Times reported, Friedman died just nine weeks after he found out he was HIV-positive. Many of his friends and family wondered what they could have done differently at the time.
“I wish I had known more,” director Michael Greif (Dear Evan Hansen, Rent) said to Paulson. “I wish that I could have found a way to let Michael let me be a better friend.”
The truth is we do know more, but many gay men (myself included) carry fear and shame from HIV stigma that still lingers from the height of the AIDS crisis. This unconsciously keeps us from getting tested. Or from holding each other accountable.
Friedman had likely gone two years without getting tested. That’s at odds with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation for gay and bisexual men to be tested every three to six months. At one point this summer, several of Friedman’s friends reportedly noticed purple splotches on his face that looked like lesions associated with Kaposi’s sarcoma.
“Of course the first thing you think of is KS, because of all those images from the ’80s, but then the other part of you is, ‘It’s 2017, so of course that’s not what it is; he has some other issue,’” Trip Cullman, a director and close friend, told Paulson. “I was very concerned... but I also knew how much he valued privacy, and didn’t want to be pushy. I obviously very much regret that now.”
In 2015, there were 39,513 people diagnosed with HIV, according to the CDC. While HIV-positive people who get on — and stay on — treatment are living near-normal lifespans now, there remain those who aren’t getting on treatment or don’t find out they are positive until they are already sick. The CDC reports that 18,303 people received an AIDS diagnosis in 2015. That’s frustrating in an era when AIDS is preventable, and it’s a reminder that we need to take control of our own health. As good as today’s miracle drugs are, they cannot completely reverse the damage HIV does to one’s immune system if untreated.
Preventative tools like PrEP, a one-a-day pill that prevents HIV-negative people from contracting the virus, would have seemed like magic to those lost to AIDS. We owe it to them not to be ignorant about the importance of such tools. We owe it to ourselves to stay on top of routine STI testing.
We’re all lucky to be living in a time where HIV is no longer a death sentence. Indeed, we are now in an era where we know antiretroviral medications can lower one’s viral load so low that it makes it impossible to transmit the virus to sexual partners. This is wonderful news! This is not the moment to stick our heads in the sand. We don’t need to hide from an HIV diagnosis.
According to the CDC, in 2014 nearly 166,000 Americans were HIV-positive and didn’t know it because they weren’t getting tested. Young people are the most likely to be unaware they are poz — 44 percent are between ages 13 to 24. HIV testing needs to become a routine part of all our lives.
We can make Friedman’s death mean something. This can be a teachable moment, but only if we allow it to be.
At the end of the day, knowing you are poz, and living a long, healthy life with HIV is much better than not knowing, and dying from complications of AIDS. Schedule your test today.