‘How To Get Away With Murder’ masterfully tackles the taboo of HIV

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Every week, I make sure I am home in time to see Viola Davis in all of her glory as Annalise Keating on “How To Get Away With Murder.” The twists, the turns, and superb acting keep me glued to my bed, because you never know which way the story is going to go. 

As much as I watch the show for good entertainment, I also watch it because it’s the first time I can recall a character that makes me feel represented. Contrary to what one might believe, I am not talking about Wes (the show’s only main black male character). I am, however, referring to the series’ gay characters, Oliver and Connor, and their artistic narrative that depicts what it’s like living with HIV.

It was in season one when the show first introduced the couple’s story plot surrounding the sexually transmitted infection. There was a scene in which Connor went to go and get tested. Although the scene took some creative liberties around what it’s actually like to go and get tested, it conveyed the importance of it, while also giving insight to the nerves and questions surrounding the process. They used the old-school method of having to wait days for the results when in actuality today’s advanced testing takes less than 10 minutes. When it was all said and done, however, the show threw a brilliant curveball. The sexually promiscuous Connor turned out to be negative, while his conservative and shy then-boyfriend, Oliver, tested positive. 

At first I thought, “Now everyone is going to think gay people always contract HIV,” but to my surprise, the storyline that has been built over the last two seasons has offered an affirming message that brings awareness about new developments in technology and provides factual information about HIV.

I can’t recall watching a show that blatantly lays out what it’s like living with HIV as HTGAWM has done. The show has discussed PrEP (Pre-exposure Prophylaxis), a one-a-day pill that can help reduce the transmission of HIV in people who are HIV negative when sexually active with those who are HIV positive. Just last week, the term “treatment” and “undetectable viral load” was used. These terms are regularly used in the HIV prevention and care world, where the goal is making sure that those who test positive are placed on treatment of ART’s (Anti-Retroviral Treatments), with the hope of reducing the amount of the virus found in the blood to less than 20 copies per milliliter or “undetectable.”

But another scene depicted one of the hardest parts about living with HIV, known as “disclosure.” 

Disclosure is when a person tells another that they are HIV positive. It’s an intimate, yet important moment, because it’s still considered a crime in states to have sex with a person who is unaware of your status. 

On the show, Oliver disclosed to a new guy he was dating right before they were about to have sex. The guy then rejects Oliver because he was “not comfortable” having sex with a person who was HIV positive. It was a powerful scene, as it was Oliver’s first time having to disclose his status after his breakup with Conner, who accepted that he was positive. Oliver was not only rejected but left speechless while standing in his underwear. The scene masterfully depicted just how “naked” one can feel when they find the courage to share such a personal part of themselves, only to be left hanging.

Living with HIV hasn’t always been the best experience. I can remember when I was first diagnosed and how I was unable to cope with the fact that I had to take meds for the rest of my life. How I feared telling anyone in my family or my friends out of possible judgment, discrimination, and shaming. I wasn’t competent and didn’t have the support system in place, I felt, to deal with the situation in a proper manner. Six years later, I’m now able to not only talk about my own personal dealings but use my story and others to help promote awareness and change towards the issue in an effort to end the virus that so disproportionately affects the LGBTQ community. I’ve had my fair share of rejection during that time as well, but I’ve been able to understand that it simply comes with the territory and that people who truly love me, love me without conditions.

“How To Get Away With Murder” is amazing on many levels, but the courageous decision to tackle the complexity and taboo surrounding HIV for millions of viewers to see is groundbreaking. I appreciate that such a show has shed light on a topic that much of the country is either scared to discuss or lacks the knowledge and resources to fully understand. I can only hope that more television programs and films begin to portray characters in a world where art will always continue to imitate life.