On Saturday, September 21, Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness spoke with The New York Times about his upcoming memoir, Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love, which hit shelves September 24. Both during the interview and in his book, Van Ness opened up about his HIV diagnosis, which he received about seven years ago at the age of 25.
“That day was just as devastating as you would think it would be,” Van Ness writes in Over the Top, per the Times.
The day before he received his diagnosis at a local Planned Parenthood, Van Ness said he experienced the flu-like symptoms — chills, fever, fatigue — linked with the earliest stage of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). He even fainted while working a shift at a hair salon.
However, now with proper treatment, Van Ness is healthy and ready to crush the stigma that surrounds HIV-positive people, describing himself to the Times as a “member of the beautiful HIV-positive community.”
By talking about his own diagnosis, Van Ness has opened the floor for other members of the 1.1-million-person-strong HIV community (in just the U.S. alone) to talk about their experiences and correct the misinformation surrounding HIV.
For example, as Van Ness clarified, a person can be both healthy and HIV positive.
An HIV treatment called antiretroviral therapy (ART) results in HIV viral suppression to the point that HIV cannot be transmitted through unprotected sex, according to a 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statement.
“Across three different studies, including thousands of couples and many thousand acts of sex without a condom or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), no HIV transmissions to an HIV-negative partner were observed when the HIV-positive person was virally suppressed,” the CDC statement read. “This means that people who take ART daily as prescribed and achieve and maintain an undetectable viral load have effectively no risk of sexually transmitting the virus to an HIV-negative partner.”
This HIV-curbing technique is called “treatment as prevention.”
“Clinicians have known that treatment as prevention, when coupled with other prevention tools including condoms or PrEP, works and that it’s important to put a newly diagnosed person on antiretrovirals as soon as possible — not only for their health and to get their viral load under control, but also for the health of their potential partners,” Eric Sawyer, vice president of public affairs and policy at Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), an HIV and AIDS prevention, care, and advocacy organization, told Healthline in 2017.
The risk of spreading HIV or the risk of compromising one’s own health is only put into play if medication is not taken as prescribed. Without proper treatment, HIV can progress to stage 3 or AIDS, which greatly increases one’s chance of contracting severe illness and infections. This progression can take anywhere from a decade to several decades, depending on the amount of treatment, if any, a person receives.
But thanks to modern medicine, living a healthy, normal life as an HIV-positive person, as Van Ness is doing, is possible. As long as a person with HIV receives proper treatment and keeps an eye on their immune system, a new normal is established and life goes on.
“When Queer Eye came out, it was really difficult because I was like, ‘Do I want to talk about my status?” Van Ness told the Times. “And then I was like, ‘The Trump administration has done everything they can do to have the stigmatization of the LGBT community thrive around me.’ I do feel the need to talk about this.”
And by Van Ness talking about his own HIV diagnosis, he’s helping to reshape what we know about HIV and AIDS, thus crushing the stigma and clearing up myths that surround the virus. For example, according to Avert.org, it’s commonly believed that HIV can be transmitted through physical touch, kissing, sneezes and spit, shared food or drink, and even through the air. And because of these truly terrifying myths, it’s scary for those living with HIV to go public with their diagnosis, and many haven’t.
But with Van Ness, who has grown his celebrity platform over the past few years, open, comfortable, and proud to share factual information about HIV, the tides will inevitably turn and the public will be better educated and less afraid of HIV and AIDS.
If you’d like to get better educated about what being HIV positive means, check out Avert.org and HIV.gov. Also, follow Van Ness on social media to see how an HIV-positive person lives their day-to-day. Spoiler alert: it’s pretty much the same day-to-day as yours and mine (you know, save for JVN being a celeb and all).