TV's Finally Getting HIV Right

TV's Finally Getting HIV Right

The fifth season of Fox’s Empire is going beyond its usual subject matter of music, fashion, and family drama. Jussie Smollet’s character, Jamal, learns that Kai — the man he’s in an intimate relationship with — is HIV-positive. Smollet told reporters that Empire writers had long been planning an HIV storyline, but since the show launched in 2015 the timing was never quite right. Until now.

With this new storyline, Smollett hopes his character’s relationship with Kai (played by Toby Onwumere) will help eradicate stigma and educate viewers on what it’s like to live with HIV today.

Thanks to modern medicines, people living with HIV no longer need to look at the virus as the death sentence it was once portrayed as. Today, people living with HIV have a similar life expectancy to their HIV-negative peers, but attitudes, especially in certain parts of the country, haven’t caught up with reality. Today, when treatment suppresses viral loads to undetectable levels, a person living with HIV cannot transmit the virus. But many people are still unaware of this.

Other television shows — including Looking, Transparent, How to Get Away with Murder, and Pose — have also tackled HIV in their plots. Empire, like Pose, has a cast predominantly of people of color, and it raises issues that touch on communities at higher risk of new HIV diagnoses.

By showing Kai as a proud, fearless, black man living with HIV who is, above all, healthy and happy, Empire can help viewers shake stigmatizing ideas about people living with HIV.

— David Artavia

Connor (Jack Falahee) and Oliver (Conrad Ricamora), the serodiscordant couple from ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder, finally got married (but naturally, because it’s still a thriller, there’s murder in the air).

Since 2015, Connor and Oliver have been one of the most prominent same-sex couples on network television. In their run on How to Get Away With Murder, they have also made history; Oliver received an HIV diagnosis, making the depiction of his and Connor serodiscordant relationship a rare (happy) one.

The pair tied the knot in the winter finale. However, there was a murder tied in to the celebration, as the identity of the victim was revealed in the aptly titled episode “I Want to Love You Until the Day I Die.” (It is a drama after all.)

The series, created by gay writer Peter Nowalk and produced by Shonda Rhimes, stars Viola Davis as a cutthroat law professor and her legal team of students, including Connor. It has broken boundaries in bringing portrayals of gay sex and sexuality, such as its infamous rimming scene, to American screens. — Daniel Reynolds

Tags: Stigma, PrEP, Activism

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