Panelists at an Wednesday night SAG-AFTRA / Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation event emphasized that Hollywood needs to tell stories that speak to the continuing epidemic of HIV/AIDS - which today is disproportionately, though not at all exclusively, African-American.
"Where are the movies about Alvin Ailey?" asked actor/writer Tarell Alvin McCraney of awards contender Moonlight, referencing the famed dancer and choreographer who died of AIDS in 1989. "The stories are there, but they don't make it to where people see them."
For McCraney, the issue is personal, among other reasons because his mother was diagnosed as HIV-positive when he was 13.
McCraney was part of a panel, held on the eve of World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, sponsored by the union and the Foundation and featuring an array of actors, activists and storytellers, including David Arquette, Jaime Pressly, writer and pediatrician Neal Baer (ER, Law & Order: SVU) and HIV and trans activist Chandi Moore (I Am Cait). SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris of 90210 fame also was in attendance.
Although HIV is now a treatable condition, only 40 percent of the 1.2 million people living with HIV in the U.S. are receiving proper drug therapy, said another panelist, pioneering physician Dr. Michael Gottlieb. Without medications to drive viral loads to undetectable levels, people still die of AIDS, with somewhere between 6,700 to 12,000 such deaths in 2014, Centers for Disease Control figures indicate.
And the problem is especially acute in what PBS recently called the "epicenter of the AIDS epidemic in America," the Southeast - a bastion of red states that includes seven of the 10 states with the highest rates of infection. Fully one-half of black men who have same-sex contact will be HIV-positive by age 35, according to Joel Goldman, managing director of the Taylor foundation.
"The scientific progress has been amazing," said Gottlieb. "The social progress has been less amazing." But Hollywood can help change that, agreed the panelists, through storylines that connect the dots and put a human face on the ongoing disease. A 2002 Kaiser Foundation study supports this notion, with statistics that show significant changes in knowledge and behavior among viewers of medical content on ER.
One element of progress, in addition to tests and therapeutic medicines, has been PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, a tongue-twister that means prescribing ant-HIV drugs to sexually active people who are uninfected, in order to prevent the virus from taking hold in the event of exposure. Developed over the last few years, PrEP has proved very effective. But, said Goldman, many Southern doctors won't prescribe PrEP medications, because they believe it encourages promiscuity.
"There are limits on people's ability to be empathetic" regarding illness, said Gottlieb.
Hovering mostly unaddressed until the end of the panel was the issue of access to health insurance, and the newly chilly political climate. Although President-elect Donald Trump has actually spoken positively about the LGBT community, his running mate and appointees to such offices as attorney general and health and human services secretary have unsympathetic or outwardly anti-gay records. Trump's relations with racial minorities are quite fraught, and his commitment to "repeal and replace" Obamacare has created enormous concern and uncertainty.
"Those who are most vulnerable in our society are about to get more vulnerable," said McCraney.
"It is a very fearful time," agreed Baer.
Carteris kicked off the evening with a nod to the late Taylor, whose AIDS activism began during another difficult time, the presidency of Ronald Reagan, himself a former SAG president. "She met the disease head on," said Carteris.
Up next was Jason Stuart, co-chair of the union's national LGBT committee, who noted the committee's goal of creating "a safe place in the workplace, [and] equality."
Taylor's granddaughter Naomi Wilding spoke next, noting that "this panel, this union and this audience are uniquely positioned" to help end the stigma and fear that surrounds the disease.
Arquette offered brief remarks, saying he was present to honor the memory of his sibling, transgender actress and activist Alexis Arquette, who died from AIDS-related complications on Sept. 11.
Baer spoke of introducing an HIV storyline in ER in 1996, and of writing gay storylines for various shows before he himself came out. "It's such a privilege to work with amazing directors and actors to tell these stories," said Baer, who currently has a pilot regarding hate crimes under consideration at Fox.
Moore focused on personal responsibility, after Goldman noted that trans women are 49 times more likely than cis women (non-trans women) to be HIV-positive. "We have to continue to find ways to encourage people to stay in care," Moore said. She, too, discussed stigma, saying "we have to break down these walls."
Pressly recounted a story about the power of media and her beloved uncle Alan, who was hospitalized in the 1980s with what doctors said was hepatitis C. But one day, Pressly and her aunt discovered a copy of People magazine with a person with AIDS on the cover whose distinctive visible symptoms were the same as Alan's. "That looks just like Uncle Alan," Pressly said, and they brought the copy of People to the doctors, who than ran tests for the various symptoms outlined in the magazine article.
Alan became the seventh person diagnosed with AIDS in the state of North Carolina, Pressly said, but even after his death in 1985, her grandmother insisted he had died of leukemia, not AIDS. It's been a long time since then, but the stigma and fear persist, agreed the panelists, and Hollywood can help change that.