Charlie Sheen's Health Is Not A Game — Why Did We Make It One?

Photo: Noel Vasquez/Getty Images.
When the story started trending late last week, I couldn’t help but get sucked in. Few could. An HIV-positive, A-list lothario had known for years about his status, the reports said, and now his past partners were about to sue him for knowingly putting them in danger. It was a macabre exercise, a dark game of Guess Who? spread across social media, speculating who could be the despicable, sick man in question.

Charlie Sheen broke his silence on the Today show Tuesday morning. Though we’d last seen him on a drug-fueled rampage, spewing hashtags about “tiger blood” and “winning,” he was calm as he presented a very different story: He was, he said, a man with some reckless tendencies who’d contracted a virus, gone through extensive treatment with a team of physicians, and done everything he could to successfully keep it suppressed.

He also claimed that he’d acted ethically, informing all of his sexual partners about his diagnosis. (One of the women he dated in 2011, Bree Olson, quickly responded that he did not, though she added that she herself was HIV-negative.) Sheen also claimed that he’d been extorted for several million dollars by a handful of people who were not themselves put at risk but who threatened to expose his diagnosis. And his fear and shame of having this diagnosis revealed motivated him to pay.

Which isn’t all that surprising. When HIV emerged in the 1980s, the virus quickly became the ultimate told-you-so, a punishment for nontraditional lifestyles — particularly those of gay men and intravenous drug users, though it was soon extended to the promiscuous and others perceived as “sexually deviants.” Like a modern-day Hays Code, the public declared that the virus was the consequence for people who flouted sexual norms. Here was the ultimate punishment, a death sentence from above for people who decided to stray from the pack.

So is this 30-year-old campaign of misinformation the reason we thought it was okay to play that guessing game in the first place? Because we believed that somehow, as a result of his actions, Charlie Sheen deserved to contract HIV?

As many have pointed out, if he were diagnosed with cancer, he would not have had to internalize the stigma and shame that he must have been dealing with since 2011. At this point, we know HIV can affect almost anyone — not just people in Africa, not just people who have unprotected sex with multiple partners on a regular basis, not just people who shoot up heroin every chance they get. HIV doesn’t have morals, and should not come with moral judgment against a person who gets it.

On Today, Sheen said that revealing his diagnosis so publicly relieved him more that he could have imagined. Not only did this mean that his “truth” belonged to him — and not the people he said were trying to extort him — but he also hoped that it might inspire others to come clean and help further lessen the stigma of the disease. And going by the public’s reaction on social media, people appear generally supportive of his courage. This is a new, responsible era for Sheen, and perhaps another step out of the shadows for those living with HIV.

True, his announcement might go far to help chip away at the stigma attached to the disease. Which is big; that stigma is part of what drives the epidemic — people are scared to get tested because they’re scared to know the truth, meaning more people are unknowingly exposed, especially in communities and regions without high-quality health care. Until we fully accept that it’s a worldwide problem, millions are going to be stuck living out Sheen’s “truth” every year.

“I have a responsibility now to better myself and to help a lot of people,” Sheen told Matt Lauer during the interview. “Hopefully, with what we’re doing today, others may come forward and say, ‘Thanks, Charlie. Thanks for kicking the door open.’” The epidemic of the 1980s and early ’90s may be gone, but the disease is still a very real threat to gay men and communities of color. Even a few new conversations about HIV could save lives.

As the first major celebrity since Magic Johnson to announce a positive HIV status that had not developed into AIDS, he almost certainly has. If it gives him peace of mind, and if it changes the way we think about HIV, good on Sheen for coming out — but shame on us for forcing him to do it.
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