When ABC7 Los Angeles correspondent Karl Schmid dropped the bombshell in 2018 that he was HIV-positive, the Australian-born journalist, beloved for his red carpet interviews during awards season, sparked a national dialogue about the stigma, fear and misconceptions of living with HIV.
“I’m a 37 year old HIV+ man who has been poz for almost ten years,” Schmid, 40, wrote on Facebook at the time, alongside a photo of himself wearing an AIDS Memorial T-shirt. “For 10 years I’ve struggled with ‘do I or don’t I’? For ten years the stigma and industry professionals have said, ‘don’t! It’ll ruin you’. But here’s the thing. I’m me. I’m just like you. I have a big heart and I want to be loved and accepted.”
Of course, the journalist, who’s viewed in 350,000 homes a night, couldn’t help but make a splash.
As Yahoo Life commemorates National HIV Testing Day, observed every June 27th since 1995 to encourage people to get tested, know their status and be educated on prevention and treatment, Schmid says the most important thing we can do is talk and ask questions.
“By having days like National HIV Testing Day, we're breaking down the stigma and we break with dispelling the myths that exist,” Schmid tells Yahoo Life. “Anytime we say the letters H-I-V, it chips away a little bit at the stigma that has been created through government campaigns, misinformation and really outdated ideas.
"By talking about HIV and encouraging people to get tested, you're normalizing it in a way. You know, there was a long period of time when people wouldn't say the word 'cancer.' They used to say the ‘c word.’ Famous people never used to say the word 'divorce' — it was a taboo dirty secret. Now, when we mention cancer and divorce, no one thinks twice about it, and that's just because it's out there. We have to realize and accept that, unfortunately, 40 years into this, HIV is still there.”
Schmid adds that HIV is “not what it was 40 years ago. It's a…chronic illness that is very easy to manage — easier than diabetes. And so by having days like National HIV Testing Day, we break down the stigma and we [dispel] the myths that exist.”
According to a study released by GLAAD and Gilead, only half of Americans feel knowledgeable about HIV and six in 10 Americans wrongfully believe that “it is important to be careful around people living with HIV to avoid catching it.”
The virus becoming a chronic, manageable condition is thanks to treatments like antiretroviral therapies (ART), a drug cocktail that suppresses the virus to such low levels in the body that a person is rendered “undetectable.”
When a person reaches undetectable, which can vary from days to weeks to months, it is impossible for them to transmit the virus to others. That fact has been supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization through the global scientifically proven consensus U=U (undetectable equals untransmittable).
Having only been raised to the public consciousness a few years ago, U=U changed the game for people living with HIV and those who love them. Before the world became aware of the consensus, folks like Schmid were left in limbo about the facts around transmission — including, unfortunately, by their own health administrators — which often left them in a constant emotional spiral.
“I didn't learn about U=U from my doctor. I learned about it via Twitter in the days after I publicly spoke about my HIV status,” he shares. “It got me a little mad: Why didn't my doctor tell me this? Why didn't somebody when I was 27 years old, when these studies were being done, say to me, ‘look, it's not conclusive yet at this early stage.’”
It was like “somebody gave me the keys to the handcuffs that had been put on me,” Schmid, who is undetectable, says of learning about U=U.
“No one was talking about it. There are still doctors in this country that say, ‘Oh, yeah, U=U. But it's not my opinion.’ Well, sorry doc. I don't want your opinion. I want the science and the facts. And the reality is the U=U messaging couldn't be easier. It's so simple and yet… our Black and brown brothers and sisters, members of the trans community, they're not hearing it.”
According to a 2018 report from the CDC, Black people accounted for 13 percent of the U.S. population and yet they were 42 percent of new HIV diagnoses that year, while Latinos made up 27 percent of new diagnoses.
Much of that disparity has to do with a lack of access to health care, education about treatment and prevention, information on sex health (including language barriers), and other complicated matters at a local level.
Schmid’s solution to the problem was to launch +Life, an HIV-focused platform offering a plethora of content revolving around love, relationships, nutrition, spirituality and more.
It was his way to not only spark conversations about HIV in the mainstream but to empower those living with the virus to stop being weighed down by fear.
“We're telling real people's stories,” he explains. “And we're telling them in hopes that people on the other side of the world, on the other side of the street, on the other side of your apartment wall, may see and hear them and relate to them and say, ‘Wow, that's me, but look at them standing out in the beautiful sunshine while I'm here locked up in my apartment, afraid to walk out because I've been diagnosed with HIV. Or I'm worried I might be diagnosed with HIV. Or I'm trans. Or I've got some other thing that is stigmatized in the public eye and I'm just going to lock myself away.’”
Last year, +Life — which has welcomed trailblazers like Dr. Anthony Fauci, Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness, Pose creator Steven Canals, and more — saw a growth of 111.2 percent, according to a press release. +Life’s content has now more than six million views and 14 million impressions across its channels. Clearly the message is resonating.
Of course, there’s a long way to go when it comes to Hollywood’s attempts at destigmatizing the virus, but according to Schmid, it’s a slow burn that’s finally happening — especially as celebs like Billy Porter and Van Ness begin to speak openly about their status.
“We should never forget where we've come from with [AIDS], but people have to remember that it is 2021, and so whenever there’s an HIV-positive character on television or in film, it doesn't need to be a tragic story,” he says. “We talk about diversity and representation on screen, whether it's someone who's differently abled, or someone who's living with HIV, it's just part of their character. It doesn't need to be the whole coming out story, so to speak.”
“As long as we keep putting the old images out there on television and in film of the emaciated drug-abusing gay white man who had way too much sex and is now skinny [living with HIV], that's the perception the public is going to still imagine is relevant,” he continues. “But more sort of positive representation, pardon the pun, is what we need, and hopefully that's starting to happen. And I'd like to think that in some tiny little way, maybe I've had a hand in that and made it a little easier for HIV-positive folks who don’t have a platform to talk about it.”
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