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Lee Daniels, Suicide, Bug Chasing and Survival

Lee Daniels’ visibility has become rampant over the last few years. Unlike other one-hit behind-the-scenes moguls, Daniels continues to push topics that you may not typically see on primetime TV.

With the success of motion pictures like Monster's Ball and Precious, the wildly likable Empire on FOX, as well as his latest, Star, he pushes the envelope with illustrating taboo tales to the general public and mass media. From closeted gay sons trying to prove their worth to their homophobic fathers to fornicating ministers performing exorcisms, Lee continues to paint the reality of today that the masses may not regularly be exposed to.

Like any other field, the more hits you get the more name recognition, as well; and the more the media want to unveil the man or woman behind the magic. As we’ve seen with Kanye West, Caitlyn Jenner, as well as Keri Hilson (never ever talk bad about Beyoncé), it can take one, maybe ten, problematic comments mixed with trolling headlines from the media for the general public to discredit and attack every spit-infused syllable that comes out of someone’s mouth. But what happens when that person actually says something profound or completely relevant? How does society digest one’s vulnerability when a subjective negative reputation has already been built on past or even current mistakes or opinions? One transparent comment could be reconciled with someone, but because of “the Internet,” they cannot see past the Facebook statuses and take something for what it is.

The other week, an article came out from a major publication with the headline “Daniels: That I don’t have AIDS is a miracle from God.” With a few hackling retweets, I opened up the article with a here we go again mentality and began to read what I assumed was going to be a horrific and insulting script of ignorance.

To my surprise, contrary to angry Tweeters attacking the piece, I was actually invested. Line after line I read a familiar story of a man I had never met. He told stories of having low self-esteem and going into bathhouses in the 80s to purposely contract HIV. Being born in the late 80s, I never experienced the trauma of having hundreds of friends die at the mercy of HIV/AIDS as some of my older friends and colleagues have told me. It’s not my testimony to have been fighting in the beginning, throwing ashes of dead friends on the White House lawn.

A commonly used term for someone who purposely seeks out contracting the HIV virus is called a “bug chaser.” Personally, I think using the word “bug” is stupid and belittling, and there is something to say about the reasoning of individuals who desire to be HIV-positive. Let’s be honest, trying to contract HIV on purpose is not a new concept. Bug chasing has been linked to a “get it over with” mentality so people do not have a fear of one day contracting HIV. People have also purposely contracted HIV if they’re in a relationship with someone who is positive just so they don’t have to worry about testing, condoms, or PrEP. Some people look at PrEP and think that they’re going to have to take a pill every day for the rest of their lives anyway, so what does it matter if they are positive or negative? This may have some truth in 2017, but scientists are constantly working on alternatives to PrEP beyond Truvada, a daily pill and the only FDA approved treatment to be used as PrEP right now.

Whether it be to collect stipends or free housing from government programs, the virus correlation with money, self-esteem, self worth, fear, love, and so many other facets is beyond fascinating and an ideology that goes beyond science and charts. The subject is human nature.

Instead of “rude,” the first thing that came to mind about this Daniels’ story was mental health, especially with black men, and even further with black queer men. We continue to see men emotionally crumble at the hands of social norms and conflicting exceptions. I questioned the desire in him wanting to kill himself. I questioned if he was given the opportunity to authentically express himself to peers without judgment or criticism, much like what is happening now. I question why, as black men, if we are conditioned to stand so boldly in our “truth,” why it is unacceptable to have a human moment and really be honest with the world…

So yes, Lee may look at it as a miracle from God that he did not contract HIV, but the bigger miracle is that he is still here after trying to kill himself. In 2017, anyone with an iPhone and the CDC website can research and have access to vital information than can save your life. We are blessed enough to have come this far in research and medicine that contracting HIV is far from a death sentence. Back in the 80s when the virus first broke out no one knew what was going on. If that comment reflected a situation today, I would totally be offended by Lee. But the mentality came from a different generation. The times were scary and we cannot forget that although in present day our friends and family live happy healthy lives, only 30 years ago peoples’ friends and families were dying. It’s because of those lives that were lost that the we have funding, science, and dedicated individuals who wake up every morning to finally put an end to HIV. Furthermore, I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: we have to look beyond the science.

Sure, Lee Daniels can say something problematic tomorrow and Facebook will go up in flames. I’ve been burned at the digital stake before for opinions I have. As someone who has been on both sides of the media, it’s easy to misconstrue words for likes and shares. Look at the context. In an oversaturated, technology-driven society, we need to take the time to strain the news for “alternative facts” and “fake news,” even when it doesn’t have to deal with Mr. President.

As a writer, whether I decide to label it as fiction or not, a majority of the content I put out there comes from experience, both personal or indirect. Lee Daniels does the same.