Charlie Sheen is reportedly coming out on "The Today Show" on Tuesday as HIV-positive—this news validates ongoing rumors swirling around this past week concerning a celebrity diagnosed with the illness who would soon be sharing the news.
The nature of his announcement—a somber, heartfelt, sit-down discussion with "Today" host Matt Lauer—demonstrates an interesting transition in how the public perceives individuals diagnosed with HIV. Though individual responses may vary, the fact that Sheen feels comfortable revealing this tragic detail about his life publicly through the media would not have been the case until recently.
HIV and AIDS have been taboo topics within mainstream culture for decades, stemming from ignorance and misconceptions of their transmission and causes. Only recently has that perception begun to shift into one more empathetic and understanding of the plight HIV-positive individuals face. Sheen’s announcement exemplifies this more than ever.
When considering the history of celebrities diagnosed with HIV, prominent figures such as Freddie Mercury and actor Anthony Perkins maintained the secrecy of their condition from the time of their diagnosis. Mercury only disclosed the fact that he had AIDS days before his death, while Perkins essentially kept mum on the issue until he passed away. Similarly, Robert Reed, star of "The Brady Bunch", died while hiding the fact that he was HIV-positive (Reed officially died from colon cancer, but doctors believe HIV also played a role), and actor Rock Hudson died just three months after announcing he had AIDS.
During the 80’s and 90’s, to have AIDS or be HIV-positive was shameful and disgraceful, something to be hidden from the public because it would warp positive perception. Magic Johnson changed all that in 1991.
As a star basketball player, Johnson was a beloved public figure, and his announcement shook the country and its impressions of what constituted someone who could have HIV. Johnson was an athletic, heterosexual man, and his diagnosis revealed the fact that truly anyone was at risk of infection. Johnson became an HIV activist, and has been essential in changing public perception of the illness—a slow but necessary process.
However, Johnson was an exception to the rule; general aversion to HIV-positive individuals persisted throughout much of the 90’s. Yet we can finally see the effects of Johnson’s efforts manifest today in individuals such as "Who’s The Boss" star Danny Pintauro, who revealed in an intimate conversation with Oprah in September that he was HIV-positive, and now Charlie Sheen.
The medium by which Pintauro and Sheen earnestly, solemnly confirm their diagnosis is a radical turnaround from the secrecy which confined Mercury and Perkins, or even the apologetic nature of Johnson’s admission. Society has made important strides in its understanding of HIV in only a few short decades, and Sheen, no matter his other antics, epitomizes both the merits and necessity of this.
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