In 1987, Tony Goldwyn made history by playing the first gay man to die of AIDS on episodic television during an episode of “Designing Women.” A couple of years later, “Thirtysomething” featured a gay artist (Peter Frechette) who was HIV-positive. These HIV/AIDS storylines about gay men may have involved the show’s leads but they were usually short-lived. In the case of “Thirtysomething,” advertisers bailed on the show when Frechette was shown in bed with his lover. Years later, HBO’s “Looking” continually addressed safe sex and HIV/AIDS throughout the show’s two-season run before it ended in 2016. Now, however, HIV/AIDS in the LGBT community is being addressed on television series like never before, in series that range from broadcast dramas such as Fox’s “Empire” and ABC’s “How To Get Away With Murder” to cable period drama “Pose” on FX.
Jussie Smollett has a very quick and direct response when he’s asked if “Empire” has a responsibility to not only entertain, but also educate its viewers.
Says Smollett, who stars on “Empire” as Jamal Lyon, “Do I feel a responsibility? Hell motherf—ing yes!”
“Empire” may be a primetime soap full of glamour, camp and music, but it’s has also tackled real-life issues, including domestic violence, mental illness, homophobia and now HIV — and even more specifically, young gay black men and HIV. Earlier this season, Jamal’s boyfriend Kai (Toby Onwumere) revealed he was HIV-positive.
“I don’t think it would be realistic for Jamal to be who he is in this day and age — a young gay black man — and never come in contact with someone who is HIV-positive,” Smollett says.
While Smollett says he and “Empire” co-creator Lee Daniels began discussing an HIV storyline shortly after the show began in 2015, Kai’s HIV “came about in our writers room,” showrunner Brett Mahoney recalls. “We were just discussing what we wanted to do and where we wanted to go for the season and we were focusing on Jamal, and some of the writers were saying that the missing element was that a black gay man in this time period would be dealing with, in some way, form or capacity, someone who was HIV positive.”
Over on “How to Get Away with Murder,” Oliver (Conrad Ricamora) came out as HIV positive in the Shondaland series’ first season, but it wasn’t until an episode earlier this year that he told his mother he was living with the virus.
“It’s funny to me how many people tweeted me and said they forgot that Oliver had HIV,” says showrunner Peter Nowalk. “That’s a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it.”
It’s good that Oliver didn’t become a character known just for being positive. However, is forgetting his diagnosis furthering the notion that HIV/AIDS is no longer a problem?
“One of the things that’s been a challenge of writing Oliver as positive is we didn’t bring it up very much because I didn’t want his whole character to be usurped by this one part of him,” Nowalk says. “But you also don’t want people to forget or think that we’re not actually telling the truth about what it’s like living with HIV.”
Both “Empire” and “How To Get Away With Murder” have addressed more than just coming out as HIV-positive. Their storylines have also included talk about undetectability (when a person’s HIV viral load becomes low enough during treatment that the virus becomes untransmittable) and PrEP (a pre-exposure prophylaxis drug taken by people are who negative to prevent HIV infection).
“Empire” writers consulted with the Black AIDS Institute’s Phil Wilson while GLAAD introduced “How To Get Away With Murder” writers to a gay couple in which one man was negative and the other was positive.
“They spoke about the stigma and the shame of having to come out as positive,” Nowalk says. “Obviously, no one person’s experience is exactly the same as the next person, but that’s our jobs as writers. It’s talking to people, listening to their stories because it’s always so specific and more unique than anything you can come up with on your own.”
In “How To Get Away With Murder,” Oliver told his mother about his status while he was getting ready for his wedding to Connor (Jack Falahee). His mother teared up and gave her son a hug. In “Empire,” Jamal’s mother Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) had a much different reaction when she learned about Kai’s status: She had flashbacks to her time in prison, when she watched other women behind bars die of AIDS. Jamal educated her about the realities of the disease now, as opposed to then, but the show also showed Cookie doing her own research on the internet.
There was a time when Smollett suggested that Jamal be the one who contracted HIV, but that was shot down because Kai provided a better teachable moment, according to Mahoney.
“If we gave HIV to Jamal, there was no way that Cookie would have ever rejected her son,” he says. “She would accept him more easily than if we gave it to someone in Jamal’s orbit, like his boyfriend. We gave Cookie the challenge to educate herself and be educated by these two men.”
And by extension, “Empire” was able to educate its audience.
If “Empire” and “How To Get Away With Murder” paint a picture of the current state of HIV/AIDS, “Pose” is a look back at the start of the epidemic in New York City in the early 1980s. In the premiere season, viewers learned that Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) and Pray Tell (Billy Porter) are positive, and they also saw Pray Tell’s boyfriend Costas (Johnny Sibilly) die of AIDS.
“As a child growing up in New York City in the ’80s, I saw the devastation that HIV/AIDS wrought in my Bronx community,” says “Pose” co-creator Steven Canals. “We had a family friend who died of AIDS when I was 10. I remember seeing him toward the end of his life. I was too young to fully understand what was going on, but it left an indelible impression on me.”
Despite “Pose’s” ‘80s narrative, Canals says, “We do have ballroom elders who are consultants with us on ‘Pose’ who are positive. They were diagnosed in the early 80s and they are here and they are very much alive. … It was important for us to show that an HIV diagnosis could be the catalyst to live more life.”
And a look back at the past can be a catalyst to inspire today.
Canals has heard from fans who have decided to get tested after watching Pray Tell take some of the younger men on the show, including Ryan Jamaal Swain’s Damon, to be tested in the fourth episode of the first season.
“It wasn’t necessarily our intention for ‘Pose’ to be used as an educational tool,” Canals says. “That said, while we were in the room discussing that narrative we knew this was something we had never seen before — four men of color, these four black and Latin men getting tested. … I’m happy that for some percentage of our audience that scene resonated in some way that made them pause and think, ‘Am I being safe and have I gotten tested recently?’”