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How #OscarsSoWhite Creates HIV Stigma for Black People


The Academy Awards are this weekend and there have been a lot of conversations recently about the lack of diversity in Hollywood. It is no secret that older, heterosexual, white men primarily represent the Academy. And because people tend to gravitate towards stories they are familiar with or comfortable with, the majority of stories that get attention are ones of a very limited experience and world view. The results of the new Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity (CARD), which examines inclusion across film, television, and digital content, is a perfect indicator that there is serious work to be done. Straight Outta Compton, for example, is a film that garnered critical acclaim and box office success, yet several Academy members admit to not even seeing the film. Why? One assumes it is because the film explores a culture that does not interest a substantial number of academy members or makes them uncomfortable.

Sure recently the Academy has recognized films such as The Help, Milk, and Twelve Years a Slave. But those films also portray a limited minority experience.  The themes in those films are historical in nature and often show the protagonists enduring tremendous hardships and overcoming a struggle. It is perfect Oscar bait. These stories allow people to feel good about themselves after watching them. For many heterosexual white audiences, the idea of oppression like this is so foreign to them that they are truly captivated by it. They can’t believe these moments actually happened. They take great comfort in believing that this isn’t the present reality, and they were not an active party to the oppression. In short, they are comfortable with this type of “diverse” story telling.

Don’t get me wrong, these stories are extremely important, and they should continue to be told. They exist to remind us of moments in history, allow us to honor those involved, teach us to avoid past mistakes, and celebrate the progress we have made. But that is not all we are. Minorities are living right now and have current stories and experiences that are begging to be represented. So my question is, when will we see more stories about minority communities that don’t just focus on our place in history? Specifically, when will this be true when covering topics such as HIV and AIDS?

To the best of my knowledge, the overwhelming majority of films about HIV have primarily involved white, gay men. And like I said before these stories are important; they matter, especially when HIV is viewed from a historical standpoint. This was the original population devastated by AIDS and marginalized by society because of it. And they are still marginalized. However the epidemic has shifted over the years to other populations and the burden now lies disproportionately with LGBT communities of color.

Black and Latino populations account for almost 70 percent of new HIV infections in the United States. Yet, there continues to be very few examples in media that reflect that point of view. When will we see the movie about the group of black gay men, HIV-positive and negative, dealing with the impact that HIV has on their daily lives? When will we see the film about the Latino man who is living in silence about being HIV positive because his family doesn’t even know he is gay? When are we going to tell the stories of transgender women of color that address all of the barriers and challenges that they face, including HIV? Why don’t these stories exist in mainstream cinema? Why have these stories not been deemed worthy of showing to the masses?

As in most other situations, there is a hierarchy of privilege at play. Even in traditionally oppressed communities the most privileged always rise to the top. In LGBT and HIV-positive populations, that privilege rests with affluent, cisgender, white, gay men. It is easier for their voices to be heard and for their stories to be told. Hollywood has shown us that, if they are going to make films about the LGBT community and HIV, they would much rather focus on white men than Black and Latino men, cisgender women, or Black and Latina transgender women.

Instead of going out and finding people who are living these realities and telling these stories, it is easier to stick to the status quo and make a film that studios, producers, writers, and audiences are more comfortable taking on. That way everyone involved can go home and pat themselves on the back for a job well done. We told an important story. Cue the Oscar “for your consideration” campaigns.

But God forbid someone has the balls, or just plain common sense, to tell a story that deals with the current reality of HIV and AIDS. But, in order to do that one would have to confront and expose all of the realities that come with HIV. If Hollywood is going to tell the stories of people living with HIV and AIDS today, then they would have to engage people of color, include us in the process, and allow us to be seen and heard. They would have to talk about homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, poverty, and how segments of the population are in a state of emergency, and often forgotten. To tell the stories of HIV today they would have to let go of outdated myths, misinformation, and fear tactics. In short to tell the stories of HIV today, Hollywood would have to tell the truth. And the truth is HIV is not something that our nation has overcome. But we are getting there, and the journey is worth exploring because it’s real.

It is so important to see yourself reflected in mainstream media. It can have a impact and provide a chance for self-reflection, empowerment, hope, and change.   It is without question that plenty of people have the knowledge and experience to tell these stories. In fact, some already are. They just aren’t getting the recognition they deserve. In order for that to happen, it takes opportunity. But when, when will that opportunity come? I for one am tired of waiting.