Jonathan Van Ness shows us HIV status is no longer something to hide

What the Queer Eye star's HIV+ disclosure signifies

Jonathan Van Ness recently disclosed his HIV-positive status in response to anti-LGBTQ+ politics in the US.
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This September, Jonathan Van Ness disclosed his HIV-positive status in an interview with the New York Times. This revelation came in advance of the hairstylist and Queer Eye cast member’s new book, Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love.

HIV, a virus that damages the immune system and can cause AIDS, has a long history of stigma because of its association with the LGBTQ+ community, specifically gay men. In the 1980s and 1990s, the AIDS epidemic, commonly and derogatorily called the “gay plague,” swept across North America. Thousands of people died from illnesses as curable as pneumonia as their immune systems failed.

HIV-positive celebrities like musician Freddie Mercury and professional basketball player Magic Johnson broke down barriers by disclosing their statuses, and scientists reported that HIV could be transmitted between anyone regardless of sexual orientation. However, stereotypes and stigmas around HIV and AIDS persisted, and continue to persist today.

For Van Ness, his decision to come forward about his HIV-positive status was triggered in the wake of political turmoil in the US.

“The Trump administration has done everything they can do to have the stigmatization of the [LGBTQ+] community thrive around me,” Van Ness told the Times. “I do feel the need to talk about this.”

In his book, Van Ness describes how receiving his diagnosis with HIV at the age of 25 felt “just as devastating as you would think it would be.” However, the stylist has gone on to share how being diagnosed gave him a new drive in life.

By taking medication consistently, Van Ness has been able to keep his viral load below the detectable threshold. This means that the virus cells in his body are so few at any given time that the condition has become undetectable and untransmittable.

As a result of his diagnosis and ability to treat it effectively, Van Ness says he’s “accomplished more in [his] life than many HIV-negative people.”

“I’ve picked up figure skating, I’ve done nothing but get cuter and be able to work longer and harder hours,” he told The Today Show. “I feel like I’m thriving.”

While HIV can be easily avoided and managed today thanks to incredible advances in medicine, that reality isn’t attainable for many people. Medical costs, especially in the US, prevent many HIV-positive individuals, who are more likely to be Black, Latinx, or LGBTQ+, from accessing proper care.

For Van Ness, seeking equitable access to HIV medication is one of the reasons behind his support for Medicare for All, a platform touted by Democratic presidential candidates, including Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

It may not seem important to see another celebrity share their HIV-positive status with the world, but continued transparency from public figures with wide fanbases is a key factor in destigmatizing the illness.

When Magic Johnson disclosed his HIV-positive status in 1991, there was a 60 per cent increase in people seeking HIV tests in New York City. He helped people realize that anybody, regardless of sexuality or fame, can contract HIV.

Now, Jonathan Van Ness is reminding people that stigmatized viruses like HIV are not life-ending.

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