Just a few days before what would have been his 58th birthday, an unidentified law enforcement official has reported Prince’s death was a result of an opioid overdose.
Very quickly after his untimely death on April 21 however, reports were surfacing in tabloids like the Daily Mail and the National Enquirer that Prince had in fact died of AIDS-related illness. In the age of social media, these news reports were quickly posted by people on social media, republished by blogs, and talked about on radio shows. While no one has publicly stepped forward with any proof of the claim that Prince was HIV-positive, what this example does show us is how much HIV stigma is still alive and well today.
According the National Enquirer and their “sources,” Prince had been diagnosed with HIV in the 1990s, and due to his Jehovah’s Witness faith, he refused to accept treatment with antiretroviral therapy. Their story also claims he was given an AIDS diagnosis six months ago, and his family has been lobbying police officials and the coroner to not release any information about his “lifestyle” that would tarnish his legacy.
I do not claim to know whether or not Prince was HIV-positive—and we may never know. But we do have to wonder why, in the height of a major problem with addiction to opiods in the U.S., the rumors surrounding the shocking death of this particular pop star was associated with HIV while knowledge of his opioid use was documented within nearly hours of his passing?
Part of the reason HIV becomes the central rumor to Prince’s death has everything to do with homophobia, and particularly a stigma around bisexuality and gender transgression. From his entrance into the music scene in the late 1970s, Prince very much played with gender, including wearing stiletto heels and bikini underwear on stage. But his play with gender went well beyond what many people would be comfortable with. Not only was it his performances and personal style, it was lyrics like the infamous lines from 1981’s Controversy “I don’t understand all the things people say/Controversy/Am I black or white?/Am I straight or gay?” And in the song, he never answers the question.
Prince and his then wife Manuela Testolini at the 77th Academy Awards in 20015 (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian)
Despite his public relationships with women like Vanity, Kim Basinger, Apollonia, and Susanna Hoffs, and his two marriages (to Mayte Garcia and Manuela Testolini), for much of his career he was suspected of being sexually fluid. And up until his conversion to Jehovah’s Witness religion in 2001, he skirted the issue of his own sexual identity. Even as late as 1996, Prince, in an interview for the Oprah Winfrey Show, is goaded into declaring whether the rumors of him being gay or bisexual are true, to which he responds, “Hey, whatever floats the boat.”
So part of what we are supposed to understand about Prince, if we are to believe the rumors he was HIV-positive and died of AIDS, is his death is yet another black man “down low” story — and that his death is a cautionary tale of promiscuity, gender transgression, and a certain “lifestyle” that leads one to premature death and debasement.
Deaths of other famous people that were related to substance use and overdose didn’t carry the same stigma of HIV associated with their passing. I don’t recall much talk of HIV where Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, or Amy Winehouse were concerned. But because Prince’s persona was very much associated with sexuality and gender fluidity, we are supposed to more easily accept his death as HIV related, and continue to indulge the scandal and shock of it all in tabloids and blogs.
But Prince himself didn’t shy away from HIV in his music — both before and after it was popular to do so. Much like his broad range of sexuality and gender expression, Prince inlcuded HIV in his lyrics. His 1987 song “Sign ‘O’ The Times,” opens with the line “In France, a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name.” In 2004, his song about the persistence of racism in the world, “Dear Mr. Man,” contains the lyric, “Ain’t nothing fair about welfare, ain’t no assistance in AIDS.”
Sadly, I wish that there was more space to talk about the impact HIV stigma still has on the LGBTQ community. This Sunday marks the 35th anniversary of the first Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report confirming five cases of pneumocystis pneumonia in gay men, which was how we began to recognize what we now know as HIV. And yet, in 2016, I am well aware of the ads on hookup sites with people declaring themselves “clean,” or “drug and disease free.” I know gay and bisexual men and transgender women who are still afraid to disclose their HIV status, or to tell people they’ve chosen to take PrEP to prevent HIV, for fear of judgment. I have friends, community members, and colleagues who are dying of AIDS-related illness or suicide or overdoses that stem from the stigma of their diagnoses — and in their deaths, we in the LGBTQ community collude in their cover-up instead of being outraged that our friends and lovers are still dying in shame.
I wish that we actually had more honest conversations about the ways in which the stigma of HIV is still impacting us. And I wish that people dying young made us angry, and not conspire to keep the secret. But I don’t think that rumors about Prince’s death will get us there. I think these rumors don’t do anything but further shame and stigma. These rumors are an attempt to give those of us who claim our sex, our genders, and our very lives as our own, more reason to stay in somebody’s closet — drug and disease-free or otherwise.
Kenyon Farrow is a writer and activist, and the U.S. & Global Health Policy Director with Treatment Action Group. Find him at KenyonFarrow.com or @kenyonfarrow.