The rumors were swirling around online for weeks: a high-profile celebrity was HIV positive. But who? After Charlie Sheen's appearance on the Today
show, we all have the answer
. Will people be quick to say that he got what he deserved based on his public persona as someone who parties hard? Undoubtedly.
As someone living with HIV, however, I won't be jumping on that particular bandwagon. Because I don't feel like anyone deserves this medical condition.
When I was diagnosed at age 11 in 1987, Charlie was enjoying the heyday of his first act in Hollywood. I remember going to see Young Guns with friends a year after I got the bad news about my HIV status. Spoiler alert: In Young Guns, Charlie gets offed in dramatic fashion. I was shocked when it happened and, strangely, I felt a kinship with his character, Dick Brewer.
Like Dick, I figured I'd be the first of my friends to go, too. When I tested positive for HIV, there weren't any good treatments available. My parents were actually told that I had six months to two years to live.
Then a plot twist happened in this young gun's life: I survived.
At age 20 I began to write and speak about living with HIV and, when I got sick a few years later, there were effective HIV drugs that helped me regain my health. Today, I take two pills a day and feel pretty damn good. Not only that, I have a great relationship with the love of my life, Gwenn. She is HIV negative and we have been together for over 15 years. I wish the boy in that theater so many years ago could have gotten a glimpse of what his future really held.
But enough about me. I'm writing this because Charlie's big announcement is going to bring up a lot of conversations about HIV. There's no doubt about that.
I just hope that some actual facts can be inserted into this story -- about the state of HIV treatment, and that those with HIV are less infectious if they are on consistent and effective treatment, which is why HIV testing is important for everyone. And most importantly, people with HIV can and do have healthy relationships.
We go to the movies to escape reality but when I hear that people still think that HIV can be transmitted through sharing a bottle of water, I sometimes wonder if I'm at the opening weekend of Young Guns, stuck back in 1988. These days, real information can be shared quickly and effectively -- but so can judgment and condemnation.
With his sharp tongue and history of domestic abuse, you could argue that Charlie had a hand in writing that next scene, titled "The Backlash." But many people before him have taken the sobering news that is a positive HIV test result as motivation to make great changes in their own lives.
And that's why I won't be RTing those memes, or reciting the lazy "Charlie Sheen has AIDS" jokes. In the aftermath of his announcement, I wish the best for Charlie Sheen moving forward. He has the potential to live a full life, and whether he decides to live a healthier life or speak about HIV from this point on or is strictly his decision.
How we choose to speak about his HIV status? That's on us.
Shawn Decker is an HIV educator, MTV Staying Alive Foundation board member, POZ magazine contributor and the author of My Pet Virus: The True Story of a Rebel Without a Cure.