A straight African-American woman finds out she’s contracted HIV from her ex-husband and has to navigate how it affects her personally as well as professionally, since she works as a physician’s assistant in a busy county hospital.
You won’t find this story on television today, but it was a prominent, ongoing storyline twenty years ago on the number one series on television during the 1996-97 season: NBC’s “ER.”
While characters with HIV and AIDS were becoming more common on television in the mid ’90s as the issue gained prominence on a global level, the story of Jeanie Boulet (played by Gloria Reuben) was particularly groundbreaking because she was not only a regular on a network television show, but a straight, minority woman and, most importantly, her character contracting HIV was not a death sentence, allowing audiences to learn from her story.
Earlier this week at The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF) offices in Beverly Hills, Reuben was joined by ETAF Ambassador/actor Daniel Franzese (“Looking”), writer/producer Neal Baer (“ER,” “Law & Order: SVU”) and ETAF’s Managing Director Joel Goldman for a roundtable to discuss HIV positive characters on television in the past and present, and how the current lack of HIV representation is related to the climbing infection rates today.
“It was our duty as writers to explore this issue that really hadn’t gotten attention except on movies of the week, where the character died,” said Baer, a doctor who was also a writer/producer on “ER” during the time of the HIV storyline. “We will show our character will live a full life even though this is going to be very messy [and] very ugly.”
Reuben, currently seen on USA’s “Mr. Robot,” recalled feeling trepidation about the storyline, but said that having an HIV positive friend helped her realize the story needed to be told. “Trust me, I was not gung-ho because it was a part of my personal life,” she revealed. “I had the feeling, rightfully so, that this was going to be tough for a long time because still, it’s my face out there on this.” Thankfully, Reuben’s heartfelt portrayal of Jeanie’s story resonated with fans and the actress received multiple Emmy nominations for her work
Unfortunately, while “ER” was taking the lead with telling Jeanie’s story, no other broadcast series included HIV stories with a regular, lead character. In fact, the next lead HIV character on a television series would be found on pay cabler Showtime with Robert Gant’s character, Ben, on “Queer as Folk” in 2002. Once that show ended in 2005, HIV characters and stories were being told with less frequency as the gap of prominent representation grew larger.
That may have been why the second season of HBO’s “Looking” last year seemed revolutionary by adding HIV positive character Eddie (played by Franzese) who, from the start, was an HIV positive gay man whose status empowered, not defined, him. “It was just going to be a part of Eddie’s life, he was never going to get sick [and] he was going to be pursued not in spite of it but maybe because of it. Because of the way he handles it, that’s why he is loved,” said Franzese.
The love story with Eddie and Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez) was compelling because Eddie owned who he was without shame and in teaching Agustin how to be an HIV negative man in a relationship with an HIV positive man, audiences learned about PrEP and other community issues. “We tried to infuse things into Looking and we worked with the creators to try to get messages in there,” Franzese stated.
“Looking” was far from the only contemporary series exploring LGBT issues; shows like ABC’s “Modern Family” and Amazon’s “Transparent” were spending time exploring other issues that, while undeniably important, seemed to push HIV into the shadows. According to Franzese, as a community, “we’ve moved on to adoption and marriage equality and trans acceptance, but it seems that HIV has taken a backseat to those other movements and they are all important, but I feel like we need as a community to bring that issue back to the forefront.”
The lack of HIV stories may have a correlation with the rise in infection rates and the fact that people are either choosing not to or don’t know how to be treated once they’re diagnosed. “We see that 87% of people who are HIV positive know their status,” Baer stated. “Then when we look at treatment we see that 36% are treated and only 30% of people with HIV have an undetectable viral load, which means they can’t transmit it to anyone … we know from studies that you’ll have a much better lifespan if you’re treated before you get sick. We hoped that our show would inspire all this but we see that we have this huge gap still of what people know and stigma and fear are still pervading. We’re not treating to 70% of people with HIV? How can that be in this country?”
Franzese added, “A shocking statistic that I learned just this year is that one in three gay men have never been tested. To me, that just seems outrageous … the lack of [representation] on television is why we’re here today with a rising of new [HIV] infections.”
The panel discussed ways that this alarming trend can be reversed, including efforts to educate the younger generation. “I’m more concerned right now with comprehensive sexual education for young people and with more creators creating more content on movies and television that explain this, because the young people will educate the people who missed that gap,” Franzese explained. “Every year we’ve heard about HIV, the numbers have gone down until it stopped being on television and then they started rising again.”
Reuben offered, “there’s still little education going on but when it comes to television, we know in today’s age with streaming, etcetera, that opportunity is ripe.”
Goldman shared that the lack of HIV stories and characters on television in 2016 is having a marked effect that he’s seeing in the real world. “I have a lot of friends who have recently been diagnosed who aren’t coming out of the HIV closet to share their status,” he said. “And I think a lot of it has to do is they’re not seeing those characters on TV. You don’t see that many.”
“Looking” ends with a feature-length special next month on HBO, and “How To Get Away With Murder” recently upped the actor who plays its recurring HIV character, Oliver (Conrad Ricamora), to series regular status, so there’s hope that content creators will recognize the opportunity that “ER” saw over twenty years ago to remind viewers that HIV is still an issue worthy of attention.
Finally, Franzese suggested we should also look to our pop culture icons to send the message of education and prevention to their legions of followers, young and old: “Let’s see Beyonce take a PrEP pill with a glass of lemonade.”
For more on The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, visit the website.