As people living with HIV enjoy longer and healthier lives in the United States, we are hearing fewer of their stories in the media. Shows like “ER,” “Life Goes On,” “Queer as Folk,” and “The Real World” used to incorporate stories about people living with HIV.

Frozen in time

Today, scripted characters are extremely rare. Those that do appear tend to be historical in nature, like HBO's “The Normal Heart” and the Academy Award-winning film “Dallas Buyers Club,” which looked back at the crisis of the 1980s and 90s without shedding any light on the current state of the disease.

Back in 2010, ABC's “Brothers & Sisters” revealed that Saul was living with HIV. But as GLAAD's Where We Are On TV reports have shown, only two recent television shows have included HIV-positive characters: HBO's now-cancelled “Looking” and ABC's hit “How to Get Away with Murder.”

To their credit, both shows included sero-discordent couples (in which one partner is HIV-positive and the other is HIV-negative), and both shows included information about other modern methods of prevention, like Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a drug treatment for HIV-negative people that helps protect against exposure to HIV.

On HBO’s “Looking” Daniel Franzese plays Eddie, a "bear” in the gay community who is HIV-positive and works at a shelter for trans youth.
Photo: Richard Foreman

Spreading stigma

In journalism, too frequently we see news reporters stigmatizing those who are living with the virus. We tend to see news reports that portray people with HIV as potential spreaders of the virus and, in some stories, as predators and criminals.

The media plays a crucial role in telling the story of HIV and AIDS, and it needs to responsibly talk about prevention without stigmatizing those living with HIV. According to many HIV and AIDS advocates, stigma is the greatest driver behind the epidemic. Stigma is what stops people from getting tested, partaking in preventive measures like PrEP and getting into and staying in treatment. By stigmatizing people with HIV, we are making all people more vulnerable.

The next act

We need to see more scripted stories about people living with HIV today in TV shows and films, including stories about transgender people and people of color, groups currently being hit hardest by the disease.

We need to see journalism that reflects a current understanding of the treatment and prevention options available, and which does not stigmatize those who are living with HIV. By increasing fair and accurate portrayals of people living with HIV, we will be another step closer to eradicating it once and for all.

By Sarah Kate Ellis, CEO & President, GLAAD

HIV On Screen

"How to Get Away with Murder" is the most recent successor to a long line of popular televisions program confronting HIV. See highlights from the evolution below.

  • 1985: Elizabeth Taylor organizes and hosts first AIDS fundraiser to benefit AIDS Project Los Angeles "Commitment to Life" event, raising $1.3 million

  • 1985: Actor Rock Hudson announces he has AIDS and dies a few month later

  • 1987: The daytime soap “Another World” introduces a character named Dawn who contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion 

  • 1989: ABC airs “The Ryan White Story,” about a young boy in Indiana forced to leave his school when people find out he's HIV-positive, starring Lukas Haas as Ryan White, and Judith Light as his mother

  • 1989: The documentary “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt” is released and won the Academy Award for Documentary Feature in 1990

  • 1991: Visual AIDS creates the Red Ribbon for the Tony Awards

  • 1991: Hollywood Supports is founded by Barry Diller, then chairman and COO of Fox, and Sid Sheinberg, then president and COO of Universal Pictures parent company MCA. The organization's mission is to change the way Hollywood portrays people with HIV

  • 1993: “Angels in America” premieres on Broadway, winning both the Tony Award for Best Play and Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play

  • 1993: “Philadelphia” is released with Denzel Washington, Antonio Banderas and Tom Hanks, who won an Oscar for his role

  • 1994: MTV casts Pedro Zamora in “The Real World: San Francisco,” and Pedro dies shortly after the season finishes airing

  • 1996: Judith Light chairs ceremony to unfurl the AIDS Quilt in Washington, D.C.

  • 2000: Showtime's “Queer as Folk” included an HIV-positive character named Vic from the very beginning of the series. Later, Michael began dating Ben, who was HIV-positive and the show addressed the issue of a sero-discordant couple dating

  • 2002: Ed Harris plays a writer dying of AIDS in this adaptation of Michael Cunningham's “The Hours”

  • 2003: HBO airs a mini-series based on the Tony Award-winning play “Angels in America,” starring Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Mary-Louise Parker, Emma Thompson, among many others

  • 2004: Colin Farrell and Dallas Roberts star in this adaptation of Michael Cunningham's 1990 novel “A Home at the End of the World” about New York in the 1980s and a man dying of AIDS

  • 2005: MTV Networks channel Logo airs “Noah's Arc” about a group of African American gay men, one of whom is an HIV educator

  • 2009: In “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” the young woman learns that she has HIV, but her young child does not

  • 2010: Saul reveals to the other family members that he is HIV-positive on ABC's “Brothers & Sisters”

  • 2011: The documentary “We Were Here” looks at the impact of HIV on the city of San Francisco and how the community responded

  • 2012: The documentary “How to Survive a Plague” looks at the early days of ACT-UP in New York City and is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature

  • 2013: The film “Dallas Buyers Club,” about a straight man with HIV who illegally imports medicine, wins three Academy Awards

  • 2013: HBO's “Behind the Candelabra” portrays Liberace's death due to complications from HIV

  • 2015: ABC's “How to Get Away with Murder” reveals that Oliver is HIV-positive