Jonathan Van Ness has had an intense three days. On Saturday, the New York Times published an interview in which he shared for the first time about being HIV-positive, surviving childhood sexual abuse, and struggling with drug addiction and disordered eating — all of which he discusses in his memoir, Over The Top: A Raw Journey To Self-Love, out September 24. (He also discusses his non-binary and genderqueer identity in the memoir — which he revealed in an interview with Out magazine earlier this year.)
The same day that the interview came out, Van Ness was preparing to move apartments within New York, and reunite his cat Liza Meowelli with his other three cats. His mother had spent the past several months fostering Liza as she recovered from an illness that made her “drown in kitten diarrhea,” as he puts it. “So I have cat reunification going on, public HIV status, moving apartments, getting ready for my comedy tour,” he tells Refinery29 over the phone on Monday. It's why he skipped the Emmys last night, he says. “It just felt like I needed to be home with my cats and my mom, and get ready for this move.”
“There are things I really want to do that I’m saying no to,” he says. “But if I can’t make the tough choice to make the time to care for myself, I won’t be able to do my tour, and I won’t be able to do my comedy, and I won’t be able to talk about the issues in my book. I know I have to have an all-the-way-full gas tank leading into that. That’s how I’m practicing self-care: learning how to say no.”
Van Ness stresses that it’s not his book he wants to talk about, but the issues he discusses in it — and that’s why he’s teamed up with Planned Parenthood to release a video encouraging people to get tested for STIs, and highlighting the need to protect access to STI screening and other healthcare treatments through Title X. The programme provides federal funding for healthcare services, including STI testing and treatment, birth control, cancer screenings, and annual exams. Earlier this year, the Trump administration forced Planned Parenthood and other health care providers out of Title X through an unethical gag rule that removes funding from providers that offer or even discuss abortion services with patients. Van Ness will also interview Planned Parenthood's Acting President and CEO, Alexis McGill Johnson, on an upcoming episode of his podcast, Getting Curious With Jonathan Van Ness.
Van Ness received his HIV diagnosis at a Planned Parenthood when he was 25, and is determined to give back. “The huge difference that Planned Parenthood made in my life and my health meant I wanted to do everything I could to shed light on what Planned Parenthood does, the unfair attacks that are being constantly levied on them, and the public health crisis that that could create,” he says.
Van Ness spoke to Refinery29 about his involvement with Planned Parenthood, his memoir, and the 2020 election.
This has been a really eventful weekend for you. What’s it been like?
It really feels like it’s been a full-circle weekend. Some of the shame and secrets I’ve been holding onto have been put to bed. Seeing it out there and being able to talk about my HIV status publicly, it’s nice to have that over with.
Along with releasing your book this week, you’re releasing a video for Planned Parenthood. How did that come about?
When I was diagnosed with HIV, I was diagnosed at a Planned Parenthood. For that reason, Planned Parenthood is an organisation that has meant a lot to me. It’s so important to know your status, and to be able to get that medication. Last year alone, Planned Parenthood gave 740,000 HIV tests.
I wanted to work with Planned Parenthood because of the attacks on them from the religious right. The ultra-religious, radical, right-wing fundamentalists are dictating our public health policy right now, and it’s dangerous. You have the Trump administration with this gag rule that basically forces Planned Parenthood out of Title X. And at the beginning of the Trump-Pence administration, we had Donald Trump directing the CDC not to use words like “trans.” To not be able to use the word “transgender” from the Center of Disease Control is such a danger, because trans people are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS and STIs. To allow someone’s religion to dictate what we study, what we treat, and who we treat is so un-American.
In your book, you reveal a lot of trauma. How did you care for yourself while revisiting that?
Well, I upped my therapy to twice a week, henny. I was like, “I think I might need an extra check-in, just to make sure.” I’m also a big meditator, and gymnastics are my creative outlet where I get that childhood joy. My yoga practice is another thing I rely on to help with any anxiety. And I’m saying no to things, which is not easy.
Both in your book and in the New York Times interview, you talk about how as a public figure, people want to tell you about their trauma. How do you set boundaries?
First of all, I feel so honoured that people feel safe and secure to share their experiences with me, which I have definitely experienced more of over these past few days. That being said, it’s so important for people who are survivors of trauma to have a relationship with someone who is able to create a safe space where they can be nurtured and heard and seen. For me, I really need my therapist and my close, trusted friends. That’s what I encourage people to do: I can hear you and see you as much as I can, but find that one person, or find that therapist, or a combination of your own personal Fab Five who can be your support system.
There are DMs people will send me that I'm never going to see, not because I don’t want to, but because I can't sit all day long and look at my DMs. You need to be around people who have the capacity and the space to hear and see your pain, and can create a safe space for you to share your pain so you can move through it.
When I look at your Twitter replies, the majority is very supportive, but there are some people spreading hate. How do you deal?
I think Twitter can be a dangerous place, so I don’t go deep. But I did see a really mean reply from a woman who, in her profile photo, is holding her child. She responded to someone who retweeted the article and said, “‘The HIV positive community,’ cue eye roll.” She was someone I really wanted to respond to but didn’t — but since you asked, I'll respond to her through you.
There are babies who are born HIV-positive, there are children who contract HIV all over the world, there are people who contracted HIV in the ‘80s and ‘90s through blood transfusions, and there are people who contract HIV as adults through unprotected sex. No matter how you contract HIV, it doesn’t make you any less beautiful. There are so many people who are thriving and living their absolute best lives with HIV. And the stigmatisation the HIV positive community has faced is so pervasive. I thought it was interesting to see this young, beautiful woman who is holding her beautiful child be so full of hate about something she doesn’t understand.
It’s important to not take it personally, because people’s fear and people’s ignorance has nothing to do with me. I’m not doing this for them. I’m doing this for people that walk with this and are living this, day in and day out. Not even HIV specifically, but whatever people are going through, I want them to know that you can heal. Whatever your traumas have been, you can heal. Those are the people I wrote this book for.
With your Planned Parenthood video, you're speaking out against the Trump/Pence administration. What do you think of the 2020 race so far?
Well, I think I know who I’m going to endorse. I am cautiously optimistic. I’m a little bit worried. I have a lot of feelings. And I think it’s too early to tell.
It’s also really important that we look at the importance of House and Senate and state legislatures. Whoever wins the presidency, one thing we have to remember is the president is only so powerful. What is extremely powerful is your district attorney and your state legislatures. We are seeing increased pressure for states to enshrine Roe in state law, and to pass some version of the Equality Act for states that don’t protect LGBTQ+ discrimination.
The Senate is also a huge issue. We have to get Mitch McConnell out. We have to reclaim the Senate. The presidency is important, and it’s definitely something we want to win, but it’s so important that we focus on [other branches of our government, too].