Jonathan Van Ness's coming out shows how public perception of people living with HIV has changed

Emma McIntyre/Getty ImagesJVN is the most recent in a long line of celebrities to talk about HIV.
  • Jonathan Van Ness, master of grooming on “Queer Eye” and host of his popular podcast called “Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness,” opened up for the first time publicly about testing positive for HIV at age 25.
  • The AIDS epidemic started in the 1980s and has evolved in regard to treatment availability and public perception.
  • From the negative attention HIV-positive individuals faced in the ’80s and early ’90s to the outpouring of support JVN is seeing today, take a look at some of the most famous people who have come forward about their diagnosis.
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Since 1984, when a mother-son duo became “the face of public education” about HIV, public reception to individuals living with HIV has changed dramatically.

During the AIDS crisis in the 80s, even celebrities who came out as HIV-positive endured the negative stigma associated with the diagnosis. As treatments developed, and more prominent people have shared their stories about living with HIV, the reception to coming out as HIV-positive has changed.

When “Queer Eye” star Jonathan Van Ness, 32, came out as HIV-positive in an interview with The New York Times on Saturday, he received an outpouring of support online. The reaction was in sharp contrast to how people have perceived HIV in decades past.

Here’s a look at the history of coming out about being HIV-positive, from 13-year-old Ryan White’s fight to stay in school, to Magic Johnson’s famous announcement that he would be retiring from the NBA, to celebrities who live with HIV today.


In 1984, Ryan White was diagnosed with AIDS after receiving a blood transfusion. He was 13 years old and doctors gave him six months to live following the diagnosis.

Taro Yamasaki/Contributor/Getty ImagesRyan (right) with his mum (left).

Source: HRSA Ryan White & Global HIV/AIDS Programs


As a teenager, White wanted to go to school. He was discriminated against because of his diagnosis and was kept from returning to classes.

Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

Source: HRSA Ryan White & Global HIV/AIDS Programs


Speaking to President Ronal Reagan’s AIDS committee, White recounted the bullying he faced, saying people spread “lies about me biting people, spitting on vegetables and cookies, urinating on bathroom walls. Some restaurants threw away my dishes. And my school locker was vandalised inside and folders were marked F-G and other obscenities.”

Bettmann/Contributor/Getty ImagesWhite listened in on classes while he was banned from school grounds.

Source: HRSA Ryan White & Global HIV/AIDS Programs


White and his mother Jeanne White Ginder continued to push against the discrimination and they started attracting attention from all over the country — this mother-son duo became “the face of public education about his disease.”

Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

Source: HRSA Ryan White & Global HIV/AIDS Programs


White Ginder said she originally thought her son would be able to go back to school after a single court hearing and a few announcements from doctors. But that wasn’t the case. She said they went through a year and a half of court hearings and discrimination before he returned to his friends.

Taro Yamasaki/Contributor/Getty Images

Source: HRSA Ryan White & Global HIV/AIDS Programs


“People were really cruel,” she said. “People said that he had to be gay, that he had to have done something bad or wrong, or he wouldn’t have had it. It was God’s punishment, we heard ‘God’s punishment’ a lot.”

Bettmann/Contributor/Getty ImagesWhite after his first day back at school.

Source: HRSA Ryan White & Global HIV/AIDS Programs


White wound up outliving his diagnosis by five years. He died in 1990, just one month before his high school graduation.

Taro Yamasaki/Contributor/Getty ImagesWhite at 16 years old.

Source: HRSA Ryan White & Global HIV/AIDS Programs


He also didn’t live to see Congress pass his namesake legislation: the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act.

CHUCK KENNEDY/AFP/Getty ImagesPresident Bill Clinton signs the CARE Act above.

Source: HRSA Ryan White & Global HIV/AIDS Programs


While White was ostracised in his hometown of Kokomo, Indiana, that wasn’t the case everywhere. His mother moved them to Cicero, Indiana, where she said students and their families proved to be more open-minded: “the president of the student body brought in the medical experts and talked to the kids…”

Kim Komenich/Contributor/Getty Images

Source: HRSA Ryan White & Global HIV/AIDS Programs


White Ginder continued: “…the kids went home and educated their parents. So Ryan was welcome, he got to go to school, he got to go to proms and dances. He even got a job.”

Taro Yamasaki/Contributor/Getty Images

Source: HRSA Ryan White & Global HIV/AIDS Programs


The family’s push for White to be able to attend school is one of the earliest examples of people speaking up about living with AIDS or HIV. The fight proved just how negative people were toward someone living with the disease at the time.

L. Cohen/Contributor/Getty ImagesWhite (left) and Elton John (right) at a fundraiser.

Source: HRSA Ryan White & Global HIV/AIDS Programs


Since White, several celebrities and public figures have come out and publicly announced that they have been living with HIV. Magic Johnson famously made his announcement in 1991.

Lisa Blumenfeld/ Getty ImagesMagic Johnson pictured above.

Source: Rolling Stone


He retired from the NBA with a statement: “Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers. Today.”

Focus On Sport/Contributor/Getty ImagesJohnson was playing for the LA Lakers when he retired.

Source: Rolling Stone


Throughout the 80s and 90s, and when Johnson first made his announcement, AIDS and HIV were “socially considered to be confined mostly to the gay community, drug users, and people who received blood transfusions,” according to Rolling Stone.

William Nation/Contributor/Getty Images

Source: Rolling Stone


Johnson said he had a very supportive family when he was diagnosed. He also recognised that’s not the case for everyone. In that case, he said, “If your uncle don’t want to be your uncle no more, get another uncle.”

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Source: Frontline PBS


Johnson is a key player who changed the narrative around HIV — when he first came out, people thought the virus was a “death sentence.” But the basketball icon has been proving that trope wrong for nearly 30 years.

Source: Los Angeles Times


Other celebrities and athletes like tennis star Arthur Ashe have been active in HIV/AIDS awareness. Ashe announced he contracted HIV from a blood transfusion after having heart surgery in 1983, thanks to rumours started about him in the press.

ullstein bild/Contributor/Getty Images

Source: Healthline


Ashe said during a 1992 press conference that he would have liked to keep his diagnosis private, noting that “There was certainly no compelling medical or physical necessity to go public with my medical condition.” He died of complications in 1993 at age 49.

AP

Source: Healthline


Eric Lynn Wright, better known as the rapper Eazy-E from N.W.A, died in 1995 a month after receiving his HIV-positive diagnosis.

Raymond Boyd/Contributor/Getty Images

Source: Healthline


Before his death, he said “I just feel that I’ve got thousands and thousands of young fans that have to learn about what’s real when it comes to AIDS.”

Raymond Boyd/Contributor/Getty ImagesDr. Dre (far left), comedian T.K. Kirkland (second from left), rapper Eazy-E from N.W.A. (second from right) and rapper Too Short (far right).

Source: Healthline


Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury is one of the most famous HIV-positive celebrities. His attempt to keep his diagnosis private for years was chronicled in the Academy Award-winning film “Bohemian Rhapsody” in 2018.

Steve Jennings/WireImageFreddie Mercury of Queen, 1982 Tour at the Various Locations in Oakland, California.

Source: Healthline


Mercury didn’t want to be a “poster boy” for AIDS, staying quiet about his HIV status until days before dying of complications in 1991 at age 45.

Steve Wood/Express/Getty Images

Source: TIME


After press reported he had AIDS before his own coming out, Mercury said “I felt it correct to keep this information private to date in order to protect the privacy of those around me.”

Brian Rasic/Contributor/Getty Images

Source: TIME


“Psycho” star Anthony Perkins also kept his experience living with HIV secretive until his death in 1992 from AIDS-related pneumonia, at age 60.

Photo by Reinhard-Archiv/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Source: Ranker


Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis was diagnosed with HIV in 1988, and remains a public advocate for those living with HIV.

Tony Duffy/Getty Images

Source: Healthline


In 2016 he said, “I did suffer from depression; if we had a day off, I couldn’t get out of bed.”

David Madison/Contributor/Getty Images

Source: Healthline


Oscar-nominated actor Rock Hudson announced he had AIDS three months before his death in 1985, at age 59.

Getty Images

Source: TIME


At the time, TIME Magazine wrote that he “represented the old-fashioned American values” of the 50s, sparking a change in how Americans perceived HIV and AIDS. TIME also wrote that he was the first movie star to come out, as evidenced by his having AIDS.

Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

Source: TIME


Styx bassist Chuck Panozzo announced his HIV diagnosis in 2001, and advocates for HIV awareness and for gay rights.

Paul Natkin/Contributor/Getty Images

Source: Healthline


He stated that being a member of Styx is his greatest source of support since his bandmates are “willing to make sure that I stay healthy.”

Richard E. Aaron/Contributor/Getty Images

Source: Healthline


Former “Who’s the Boss?” child star Danny Pintauro came out as HIV-positive in 2015, telling Oprah Winfrey “I wanted to tell you this a long time ago, but I wasn’t ready. I’m ready now. I’m HIV-positive, and I have been for 12 years.”

Photo by Aurora Rose/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Source: Healthline


The actor said he delayed talking publicly about his diagnosis for several years because he was concerned about the stigma around it.

ABC Photo Archives via Getty Images

Source: Healthline


Actor Charlie Sheen has been HIV-positive since 2011, and came out with his diagnosis in 2015.

Jamie McCarthy/ Getty ImagesCharlie Sheen attends the 24th annual Elton John AIDS Foundation’s Oscar viewing party.

Source: Healthline


His announcement was controversial because he said he continued to have sex with women while knowing he was HIV-positive. He said, “I have a responsibility now to better myself and help a lot of other people.”

Rich Polk/Getty Images

Source: Healthline


Van Ness came out as HIV-positive in an interview with The New York Times on Saturday, receiving a positive reception online.

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic via Getty ImagesJonathan Van Ness attends the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards.

Source: Allure, The New York Times


He told The New York Times that he was unsure at first if he should come out, but that he wanted to help change misperceptions that people still have about living with HIV.

Reuters/Monica AlmeidaJonathan Van Ness wore a stunning dress by Christian Siriano to the 2019 Creative Arts Emmys.

Source: The New York Times


“When ‘Queer Eye’ came out, it was really difficult because I was like, ‘Do I want to talk about my status?” Van Ness said. “And then I was like, ‘The Trump administration has done everything they can do to have the stigmatization of the L.G.B.T. community thrive around me.’ I do feel the need to talk about this.”

NetflixThe cast of ‘Queer Eye.’

Source: The New York Times


There is still a negative stigma associated with having HIV, and Van Ness writes in his upcoming memoir that testing positive “was just as devastating as you would think it would be.”

Jerritt Clark/Getty Images

Source: The New York Times


Even with lingering negativity, the warm reception Van Ness’s coming out received demonstrates just how much the public perception of the diagnosis has changed since the first celebrities told the world they had tested positive.

FilmMagic/Contributor/Getty Images

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