Info Center

What I Learned About HIV/AIDS From Watching TV

By , 17, Staff Writer Originally Published: June 11, 2024 Revised: June 11, 2024

You may have learned facts about HIV/AIDS in your health class. In my sex ed experience, we discussed it, but only symptoms and statistics. Not once did we talk about the realities of living with HIV or AIDS, or the people behind the stats.

For me, media like movies and TV has done the work my health class did not: humanizing and representing those with HIV/AIDS. Over the years, that representation has evolved, helping the public’s perception of HIV/AIDS to evolve as well.

A Little Background

First, some information. When HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is untreated, it can become AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome). Those with AIDS have an increased risk of developing diseases because their immune system is compromised. HIV can be spread via certain bodily fluids (blood, semen, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, breast milk and pre-ejaculatory fluid); methods of transmission include sharing contaminated needles for intravenous drug use or having sex with an HIV-positive partner.

We’ve come a long way in terms of HIV treatment and prevention—we know so much more now than forty years ago! But at the start of the epidemic, not much was known or understood. The earliest cases in the U.S. were among men who had sex with men, and HIV/AIDS was initially seen only as a “gay men’s disease,” even temporarily named “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency,” or GRID. The name didn’t last, but the sentiment unfortunately remained. We now know that people of any gender or sexual orientation can contract HIV. But the idea that it was a “gay disease” affected both the perception and response.

A lot of people victim-blamed those with HIV/AIDS, and wanted little to no contact with them. A lack of information or misinformation only made things worse.

A Different Narrative

With all the stigma and fear surrounding HIV, arts like film, theater and television presented a different narrative. Shows, movies and musicals were instrumental in representing those with HIV/AIDS in a compassionate way, as well as tackling myths about how to contract HIV.

Shows, movies and musicals were instrumental in representing those with HIV/AIDS in a compassionate way, as well as tackling myths about how to contract HIV.

The first mainstream media depiction of HIV/AIDS was a 1983 episode of TV show St. Elsewhere, titled “AIDS and Comfort.” While some of it may seem outdated now, at the time, it was groundbreaking. This representation was among the first of its kind, and worked to humanize those with HIV/AIDS and discourage judging on the basis of homophobia and fear.

Personally, I’m grateful to Degrassi High, a Canadian teen drama, for a 1990s storyline in which a heterosexual, cisgender male bully contracts HIV. I found this show on YouTube during the COVID-19 pandemic and was hooked! Before watching, I’d known that HIV was a disease and that Freddie Mercury had died of AIDS-related complications. That was pretty much it. I could have easily developed misconceptions about HIV/AIDS from misinformation out there. Instead, through Degrassi’s humanizing portrayal of a person with HIV, I learned a lot. It opened up my perspective. This also represented more of a shift away from HIV being a disease that only gay men could have as well as toward central characters with HIV being featured.

Humanizing Those with HIV/AIDS

Through more sympathetic, realistic media depictions of HIV/AIDS, some public perception steered away from judging and blaming to more kindness and acceptance.

The legacy of HIV/AIDS depiction continues. For instance, TV shows such as Sex and the City, Girlfriends, Queer as FolkPose and more have tackled it in some shape or form.

By showing diverse stories of those with HIV/AIDS, entertainment media has helped people learn more about HIV/AIDS and become less afraid or judgmental and more informed.

Representation Needs to Continue

Representation is incredibly valuable, not just so people can see themselves within stories and characters on screen, but also to increase awareness and support. This is why it’s so important to continue representing those with HIV/AIDS realistically and reliably. People still have misconceptions; we need to continue to show how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.

Arts and entertainment media helped shift the view to a more sympathetic one at a time when there was a lot of fear and uncertainty. I’m so grateful for this and for the movies and TV shows that didn’t shy away from accurately and humanely showing the impact of HIV/AIDS.

Please login to comment on this story

How HIV Stigma Affects LGBTQ Teens How HIV Stigma Affects LGBTQ Teens

How HIV Stigma Affects LGBTQ Teens

By , 19

Young people in the U.S. today were not around a few decades ago to see the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic at its peak. Since then, there have been advances in the prevention and treatment of HIV.…

Read Story »
Meet Muluba Habanyama Meet Muluba Habanyama

Meet Muluba Habanyama

By , 17

Born HIV positive, twenty-two-year-old Muluba Habanyama is determined to make a difference and debunk myths about HIV. She says she has “always actively participated in some form of volunteering” and has been involved with Canadian organizations…

Read Story »
Chat software by BoldChat