It all had started so innocently. Back in 2013, the New York State Division of Human Rights posted a public awareness ad that featured the image of a woman alongside the text “I AM POSITIVE(+)” and “I HAVE RIGHTS.” The intent was to inform people with HIV that the state’s laws protected them from discrimination.
The folks who created the ad grabbed the model’s photo from Getty Images, a stock photo service. Only the model in that picture, Avril Nolan, didn’t have HIV — and she didn’t want anyone thinking she did.
Heck, can you blame her? I hear people get unlawfully discriminated against for having that virus! Someone should put out an ad reminding folks about that.
Anyway, Nolan (and her lawyers) sued the state for defamation. In October, a New York State Court of Claims judge ruled that she (and her lawyers) was right, and that her lawsuit could continue.
The judge was reasonable. The judge was rational. The judge was, let’s face it, realistic.
“It would be hoped that an indication that someone … has been diagnosed as HIV-positive would not be viewed as indicative of some failure of moral fiber, or of some communicable danger, however our society is not so advanced,” Judge Thomas H. Scuccimarra wrote in his decision.
He added that the ad’s incorrect portrayal “that Ms. Nolan is presently diagnosed as HIV-positive, from the perspective of the average person, clearly subjects her to public contempt, ridicule, aversion or disgrace and constitutes defamation per se.”
(“Defamation per se” is legal term that’s typically employed when a person has been falsely accused of having a “loathsome” disease, according to the New York Law Journal.)
In other words, this is where our society is at today, more than 30 years into our tumultuous relationship with HIV in the U.S.: People are still afraid to be associated with the virus for fear they’ll be discriminated against — and that includes people who appear in ads informing the public that people with HIV can’t be discriminated against.
My head hurts.
This is the awful environment in which Charlie Sheen decided to publicly disclose on Nov. 17 that he was one of well over a million people in the U.S., and one of roughly 35 million folks on the planet, who are living with a particular virus inside their bodies. You’ve already heard more than enough about Charlie Sheen lately; you probably don’t need me to retread that ground.
(In case you do, note that TheBody.com and all of the websites who team up for this column have written some outstanding content covering various angles of the story online.)
But the Nolan defamation case testifies to just how desperate Sheen’s situation must have become that he felt he needed get his status out in the open — out into a public that, generally, still finds HIV-positive people worth contempt, ridicule, aversion and disgrace.
Every Dec. 1, humanity marks World AIDS Day. We see HIV covered extensively on the web, in newspapers, on radio and on TV. We witness public awareness events, testing campaigns and speeches — at least one of which will have taken place somewhere pretty close to you, given that HIV affects every type of person in every region of the country (and the planet).
Experts rattle off all sorts of big, sobering, scary numbers, and they talk about prevention, treatment and the search for a cure. Politicians politicize, activists advocate, blowhards bloviate.
The efforts around World AIDS Day often seem shallow or pointless to many of us, and I’m sure a lot of them are. It’s easy for a grass-roots movement to lose some of its sense of soul when its primary day of activism becomes a regularly scheduled event.
But let’s not forget what the point of all this is. The point is that having HIV doesn’t make someone a bad person.
Being a person living with HIV is not comparable to any other state of existence: You’re not a smoking gun, you’re not a car with no brakes, you’re not a ticking time bomb. You’re a person living with HIV, a treatable virus.
Avril Nolan shouldn’t feel like she has to sue somebody to avoid being associated with it. Charlie Sheen shouldn’t feel like he has to go on national TV and tell the world he has it so that people will stop blackmailing him.
Living with HIV isn’t loathsome, but the way we treat people with HIV too often is.
We need to do better — and we can, each of us, one person at a time. Hopefully Avril Nolan and Charlie Sheen will help.
Hopefully, one day soon, HIV anti-discrimination ads will be unnecessary, defamation lawsuits won’t need to happen, and the decision to disclose one’s HIV status in public will be a matter of personal preference, not compulsion.
Myles Helfand is the editorial director of TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com. Find him on Twitter @MylesatTheBody. This column is a project of Plus, Positively Aware, POZ, TheBody.com and Q Syndicate, the LGBT wire service. Visit their websites — HIVPlusmag.com, PositivelyAware.com, Poz.com and TheBody.com — for the latest updates on HIV/AIDS.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 27 2015.