World AIDS Day is every year on Dec. 1 and can be overlooked by many people as we celebrate the official start of the holiday season.
However, given that HIV/AIDS affected approximately 36.7 million people worldwide at the end of 2016 and is still considered to be a significant health issue today, it deserves attention.
As 2017 comes to an end, let’s reflect on a few of the television programs that feature powerful storylines for characters living with HIV. More so, how it affected not only these individuals, but also their loved ones.
1. “An Early Frost” (1985)
The made-for-television film was the first to address the topic of gay men affected by the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. Penned by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, the screenwriters made one of the earliest strides to break the stigma surrounding the ostracized community. Despite the revolutionary storyline, Lipman recalled in 2015 to The Huffington Post that NBC did not give them an easy time. “You couldn’t stack the deck by having the gay characters be ‘too gay.’ You couldn’t have all the straight people be the villains and the gay people be the heroes.”
2. “Designing Women” (1987)
The episode “Killing All the Right People” shows the character Kendall Dobbs (Tony Goldwyn) asking the main women on the show to design his funeral. Dobbs is then revealed to be gay and dying of AIDS. One of the most iconic moments in the episode was the following exchange:
Imogene: “As far as I’m concerned, this disease has one thing going for it: It’s killing all the right people.”
Julia Sugarbaker: “Imogene, get serious, who do you think you’re talking to? I’ve known you for 27 years and all I can say is if God was giving out sexually transmitted diseases to people as punishment for sin, then you would be at the free clinic all the time!”
3. “thirtysomething” (1991)
TV Guide considers the show to be one of the “best shows ever on television.” When Peter Montefiore (Peter Frechette) contracted HIV from one of his sexual partners, the show broke one barrier. Then, when Montefiore was shown naked in bed with his boyfriend Russell (David Marshall Grant), even more filters and illusions of the lives of openly gay men were dropped.
4. “General Hospital” (1993-95)
Stone Cates (Michael Sutton) was a game-changing character on the hit ABC soap opera. Cates died of an AIDS-related illness at 19-years-old in 1995, and Sutton would later be nominated for a 1996 Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series. His character’s legacy continued on the show; his close friend Sonny Corinthos (Maurice Benard) donated his late wife’s inheritance to General Hospital to open the Stone Cates Memorial AIDS Wing, and Cates’ girlfriend Robin Scorpio (Kimberly McCullough) would discuss her eventual diagnosis as HIV-positive and relationship with Cates to those she later met.
5. “Queer As Folk” (2000-05)
The Showtime drama — also written by Cowen and Lipman — further humanizes gay men who live their daily lives with the knowledge that they are HIV-positive. Throughout the five-year run, the program shows three generations of men affected by the disease, including Vic Grassi (Jack Wetherall), who later dies of AIDS-related complications; Ben Bruckner (Robert Gant), who contracts HIV from a former partner; and Hunter Novotny-Bruckner (Harris Allan), who discovers he is positive from his time as a street hustler. The show also discusses the social, political and emotional dynamics of serodiscordant couples, where one partner is HIV-positive and the other is negative, through Bruckner’s relationship, and later marriage, with Michael Novotny.
6. “The Normal Heart” (2014)
A more recent film, The Normal Heart goes back in time to the 1980s to depict the rise of the HIV/AIDS crisis in New York City. The film includes many well-known actors, including Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons and Julia Roberts. In the film, Ruffalo’s character, Ned Weeks becomes the founder of a “prominent HIV advocacy group.”
7. “How to Get Away with Murder” (2015-17)
On the popular legal drama series, Oliver Hampton (Conrad Ricamora) and Connor Walsh (Jack Falahee) are in an on-again-off-again relationship. At the end of the first season, at Hampton’s insistence, both characters get tested for HIV, which results in Hampton learning that he is positive. The scene where Hampton suggests that they get tested, like others before it, breaks the stigma of being HIV-positive, but also stresses how prevalent it remains among men in the gay community and why it is important to be safe and get tested.