When the NBC drama "ER" broke ground in 1996 by taking one of its series regulars, Gloria Reuben’s Jeanie Boulet, and had her contract HIV, the storyline was groundbreaking for a number of reasons. It also came at a time when there was still an abundance of misinformation about people who were HIV positive.
The fact that Boulet was straight, African American and a woman already broke a long-standing stigma that HIV was a disease solely for the LGBTQ community. It also showed a character go through both personal and professional drama, since she was a physician’s assistant actively working in a hospital and had also slept with one her coworkers (Peter Benton, played by Eriq La Salle) prior to her diagnosis.
At a recent discussion held at The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation in Beverly Hills, "ER" Executive Producer Neal Baer said the character was not taken down this road only to have the story end in her death. In fact, the character returned years after Reuben left the series to show she was still living her life with HIV.
Besides Benton's character having to find out whether he was infected (he wasn’t), "ER" used the storyline to its every advantage. "We chose a story that was of its time and gave us more than we ever thought we would get,” Baer recalled. Through all this drama was a thick layer of education for viewers to help understand what it meant to be living with HIV at the end of the 20th Century.
However, for all the good "ER" did two decades ago, HIV positive characters and storylines are hard to find on television these days. This would be fine if HIV and AIDS were a thing of the past, but, unfortunately, that is not the case.
According to UNAIDS, 36.7 million people globally were living with HIV in 2015, and in that year alone 2.1 million people were newly infected and 1.1 million people died from AIDS-related illnesses. So while the conversation surrounding the epidemic may have tapered off, HIV/AIDS is still very much alive.
Since television remains one of the strongest forces to educate and inform the public about important topics and issues, the lack of storylines involving HIV and AIDS is relevant. Currently, there are only two television programs on major networks that include a recurring character that is HIV positive - and one of those, HBO's "Looking," is coming to an end this month. The other is ABC's "How to Get Away With Murder."
“What really pushed me to take the risk is there wasn’t anyone on TV [with HIV] represented, and that just made me sad,” said Peter Nowalk, creator and executive producer of "How to Get Away With Murder."
Nowalk, who received a GLAAD Media Award in 2015 for his work on the show, said while the response was more positive than negative, there were some who did not support the HIV storyline.
“I got a lot of tweets and articles sent to me where people thought it was bad," he said. "They were like, ‘Oh, do we really have to go to that well again?’ I don’t think people realized the well hasn’t been drank from in a really long time."
Conrad Ricamora, who plays HIV-positive character Oliver Hampton on "How to Get Away With Murder," admitted when he heard his character would be diagnosed with the virus, he had to quell his own fears and stigma about what it meant to have HIV.
“I actually had to become educated about it. I think that somehow ties into why infection rates are also climbing, because people are not informed, but there’s this weird stigma around it that people are even scared of being informed about it," Ricamora said.
In telling Oliver's story, Nowalk said he wanted to avoid making it one of doom and gloom. “For a long time, when there was a gay story in the 90s, it was always about HIV, and the defining characteristic of being a gay person on TV was dealing with HIV or dealing with AIDS," he said.
While the show does bring up topics like PrEP, Ricamora emphasized that his character's diagnosis is never the driving force of his storyline.
“It's been sporadically mentioned, but it’s not what defines Oliver - and I don’t think it’s what defines anyone with HIV or AIDS,” he added. “It normalizes it and brings it into awareness without it having to be an after-school special.”
While HBO's "Looking" will air its swan song on July 23, ABC's "How to Get Away With Murder" will be back in September with its third season.