7 Times TV Got HIV-Positive Characters Right (and One Series That Never Bothered)
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While HIV is a matter-of-fact experience in the lives of many gay men, it’s rarely portrayed on TV. (And when it is, it’s usually steeped in stigma and pity.) But every once in a while a TV show gets it right, and that’s definitely a cause for celebration. Here’s a list of seven standout HIV-positive characters from television.
1. How to Get Away With Murder, ABC (2014–2020)
The character of Oliver is one of the best modern portrayals of an HIV-positive character on television. When he discovers he is HIV-positive there is initial fear and grief, but he moves through it and it’s not the central trait of his character. What makes him stand out is that he’s a young gay man of color who is multi-dimensional and sexual. It’s rare to see gay HIV-positive characters on TV openly and unashamedly express their sexuality, so this portrayal is not only a breath of fresh air but a great example of how HIV can be incidental to a character as opposed to their defining characteristic.
2. Angels in America, HBO (2003)
Based on Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, the HBO miniseries features a number of gay men living with HIV, but it’s the story of the demise of despicable right-wing crusader Roy Cohn — played brilliantly by Al Pacino — that really grabs you.
One can’t help but find a little bit of delight in the suffering of a man who was responsible for destroying so many lives. Meryl Streep also delivers a brilliant performance as Ethel Rosenberg, one of Cohen’s victims, who balances revenge and compassion. Cohn, also a mentor to Donald Trump in the ’70s and ’80s, played a key role in a government that attacked homosexuals as communists and un-American — the same government that met the AIDS epidemic with immorality, homophobia and inaction.
3. Designing Women, CBS (1987)
The “HIV episode” of Designing Women in 1987 was heartfelt, funny and gave us one of the best Julia Sugarbaker monologues in the show’s history. Tony Goldwyn (of Scandal fame) portrays Kendall, a young gay man with HIV who asks the women to plan his funeral. The episode, titled “Killing All the Right People,” demolished anti-gay moralizing with both wit and humor.
4. An Early Frost, NBC (1985)
This 1985 made-for-TV movie was groundbreaking as the first time network television dealt with HIV. Aidan Quinn portrayed Michael, a gay lawyer who had to tell his family he was gay and had HIV. That was a story all too common in the early days of the epidemic, and this film approached it with surprising humanity at a time when much of the country had turned its back on gay men.
5. As Is, Showtime (1986)
This TV movie is an obscure choice, but it left a lasting impression on me. It was the first time I ever saw gay men deal with HIV on television. I was 13 years old and didn’t call myself gay, but I knew those men — men who liked other men — were like me.
6. Looking, HBO (2014–2016)
I found the show Looking to be a total bore, and the characters were annoying and whiny and certainly not the kind of gays I would ever look for. The character of Eddie, however, played by Daniel Franzese, was a nice change of pace in the otherwise unwatchable series. I mean, who still calls HIV a “house in Vermont”?! Eddie’s character was a great opportunity to explore serodiscordant relationships and talk about the relatively new issue of PrEP.
7. The Real World, MTV (1994)
MTV’s The Real World played a huge role in sparking the now-ubiquitous reality TV genre. In 1994, by telling the story of Pedro Zamora, this documentary-style show was the first “real” portrayal of a young gay man living — and ultimately dying — of HIV. Zamora was outspoken and unashamed, and he set a very high standard for HIV-positive characters on TV that few other shows have met.
Honorable Mention: Rock Hudson on Dynasty
Dynasty didn’t have an HIV-positive character, but it did have an HIV-positive actor on the show from 1984–1985. And it wasn’t just any actor; it was Hollywood legend and standard-bearer of masculinity Rock Hudson. While shooting the show, Hudson was visibly ill, but he had yet to come out about being gay or HIV-positive. When he did finally publicly disclose his status, it made tabloid headlines. I can still vividly remember the tabloid cover that wondered whether Hudson might have exposed his co-star to HIV via an onscreen kiss. HIV hysteria still sells.
Dishonorable Mention: Will & Grace
Will & Grace gets a dishonorable mention because it’s a show that was so groundbreaking for LGBTQ issues, but it completely ignored HIV. How was it possible to feature two gay men living in New York City in the ’90s with zero mention of it? This is the epitome of a missed opportunity. The show’s revival didn’t fare much better, and though it’s willing to tackle all sorts of political topics, HIV still seems to be the one thing it won’t touch. What a shame.
Are there any other HIV-positive characters you think TV got right? Sound off in the comments.
This article was originally published on September 19, 2020. It has since been updated.