Recently celebrity Jonathan Van Ness has come out to fight the stigma of being HIV positive. GayIceland’s Yaz Duncan talks to Einar Thor Jonsson, Director of HIV Iceland, about the star’s decision and its impact.
This year 11th October marked ‘Coming Out Day’, a day to celebrate and encourage people in the LGBTQ+ community to be open with their friends and family about who they are.
The day receives widespread support from high profile individuals and organisations and in previous years has seen celebrities reveal themselves as LGBTQ+, doing their part to challenge stigma and discrimination.
However, recently Jonathan Van Ness, cat lover, coffee dancer and star of the Netflix original series Queer Eye came out not as LGBTQ+ (which they are) but as HIV positive.
“I think it is great that Jonathan Van Ness from Queer Eye has come out as HIV positive and that it has a positive impact on normal people.”
In a world where stigma still exists towards HIV positive people, and where the government in Van Ness’ native USA is restricting access to sexual and reproductive health services, this is a bold move. HIV stigma exists based on fear and on the assumption that only certain groups of people can be infected, which leads to value judgements against those groups. The AIDS crisis of the 1980’s also sticks fast in people’s minds, and coupled with ignorance about how the infection is transmitted and treated, this can create a hostile environment, in which those living with HIV feel isolated and judged.
In contrast to an increasing number of celebrities coming out as LGBTQ+, or in Mark Ronson’s case ‘sapiosexual’, coming out as HIV positive is still fairly uncharted territory in the public eye.
Commenting on Van Ness’ decision to come out, Einar Thor Jonsson, Director of HIV Iceland, says: “I think it is great that Jonathan Van Ness from Queer Eye has come out as HIV positive and that it has a positive impact on normal people.
It creates a positive image and to people who come out and are visible I would like to say ‘thank you’. It’s very important that so called ‘normal’, nice, good looking people come out as HIV positive, because everyone can get HIV, even if they don’t belong to vulnerable groups.”
HIV first surfaced in the 1980’s (though its history is longer) and was ingrained in the public consciousnesses as a ‘gay disease’ and as a death sentence. However, organisations like HIV Iceland work to challenge those perceptions whilst also supporting those living with the condition.
When asked if there’s anything he wants people to know about HIV, Einar hinks and replies. “One thing that people should know about HIV is that 97% of all people in Iceland who have been diagnosed have had treatment and are not infectious.
It’s very important that society understands this. It’s very important that when you are diagnosed you go on treatment, it’s the best thing for your body and the best thing for everyone.”
Van Ness has made no secret about his desire to use his platform for advocacy on issues like access to healthcare, LGBT rights, the US constitution and clean beauty, all of which are covered in his podcast, Getting Curious.
A weapon against stigma
Perhaps the biggest positive about him coming out as HIV positive, is that it provides the chance to re-open the discussion around HIV, to break down stigma and our perceptions about what someone who has HIV looks like, but also how they live and what the outlook for their quality of life is.
Van Ness coming out as HIV positive, could also be used as a positive catalyst for talking about how we prevent and treat HIV. This is a discussion that we need to have, especially in the face of the rise of ‘chemsex’, where participants take illegal drugs and have sex, usually with other men, under the influence. Aside from throwing up issues around consent and assault, chemsex participants are at risk of contracting HIV through unprotected sex, but also by using shared needles.
“One thing that people should know about HIV is that 97% of all people in Iceland who have been diagnosed have had treatment and are not infectious.”
On the other side of the coin, Van Ness has mentioned that he takes medication for his condition that makes him unable to pass on the virus and he seems to live a busy and active life. This surely can give a lot of hope to people living with the condition or that have been recently diagnosed.
Above all, Van Ness has used his platform at the peak of his popularity to seize the opportunity to open discussions about HIV and challenge the perceptions of what someone who has HIV looks like, what their life is like and what they can hope to achieve.
These discussions are based on lived experience and on facts, rather than scaremongering or value judgements from unsympathetic groups and after all, accurate information and personalization of issues is the best weapon against stigma.