'How to Get Away With Murder' Swaps HIV Stigma for Real Love

This season, the Shondaland show is offering a nuanced portrayal of couples dealing with the virus and PrEP.

Conrad Ricamora as Oliver, left, and Jack Falahee as Connor in 'How to Get Away With Murder.' (Photo: Mitch Haaseth/Getty Images)

Oct 8, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca Raber is a regular contributor to TakePart. She has written for Pitchfork, MTV Hive, The Village Voice, Spin, CMJ, and other publications.

How to Get Away With Murder has shocked viewers with its twisty plot reveals—Annalise used to be in love with a woman! Bonnie killed Rebecca!—and its steamy, explicit (by network standards) love scenes. But it’s also had bold, bravura performance moments for Emmy winner Viola Davis—last season’s makeup-and-wig-removal scene, for one.

Now it’s surprising audiences in a different way: by breaking ground not only as the sole current network program to feature an HIV-positive character but also as the only one that frankly and nonchalantly explores his post-diagnosis sex life.

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When reformed promiscuous commitment-phobe Connor and sweet computer nerd Oliver decided at the end of last season to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases before reinstating their burgeoning relationship, they were stunned to learn that Oliver was HIV-positive.

There hasn’t been an HIV-positive recurring character on a network show in years, so the simple act of Oliver’s existence is something to celebrate. (HBO’s now-cancelled Looking also featured a nuanced character who was HIV-positive, though the show played to a much more niche audience.) However, HTGAWM show runner Peter Norwalk, who wrote the recently aired second-season opener, did something even more profound: He kept Oliver and Connor together and showed two men openly speaking about HIV, sex, and commitment in a deliberate, forthright way.

Viewers see the duo talking, not like characters in an after-school special about AIDS but as thousands of real-life adults do every day, figuring out a way to negotiate a health risk while continuing and even deepening an adult sexual relationship.

There are 1.2 million people in the United States living with HIV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Men who have sex with men make up more than 500,000 of those cases and account for 68 percent of new diagnoses. But as treatments for HIV have improved, people are living longer, and the disease is losing its reputation as a death sentence. That’s a good thing, but ironically, as more people survive with HIV, fewer of them are visible in our entertainment, as the urgency to use television to educate about the virus has been lost.

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For years in the 1980s and ’90s, television was a useful, if not particularly sophisticated, teaching tool about the virus. These weren’t nuanced depictions of people with HIV or AIDS, but in those scary early days, learning how the disease was transmitted on, say, Designing Women from the Sugarbakers’ interactions with a pre-Scandal Tony Goldwyn served an informative purpose.

Now, the only time you usually see someone with HIV or AIDS on television is in a period piece, such as The Normal Heart or Angels in America, set in the terrifying early days of the epidemic.

Now that HIV is, at least for the well-insured in the United States, a treatable, chronic condition that can be managed, there are different, more complex stories to tell: tales of young lovers navigating safer sex practices, or activists working to make sure antiretroviral medications are widely available to the poor, or new seriodiscordant couples exploring pre-exposure prophylaxis.

The latter is what’s happening on HTGAWM. A PrEP regimen (it’s perhaps better known as the brand-name drug Truvada) is a daily pill taken to prevent HIV infection. When Connor began taking the pill so that he could resume a sexual relationship with Oliver, it was quite possibly the first time PrEP was mentioned on a prime-time network show. Though there has been some controversy surrounding Truvada, Connor’s decision to take it was presented matter-of-factly, a means to end in which he can continue the physical side of his relationship with Oliver.

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“It felt very real to me that these two guys, especially Connor, would not have an issue about getting on PrEP,” show runner Norwalk recently told NewNowNext. “It’s a few days after we last saw them, and that’s a pretty easy decision for him—and an easy thing to do that allows him to feel secure in their relationship.”

Though many outside HIV-aware networks may never have heard the word “PrEP” before last week’s episode, when used as directed, it reduces the risk of contracting HIV by 92 percent, according to the CDC. A recent two-and-a-half-year study of the drug found that none of the 600 gay and bisexual men on Truvada in a research program had contracted the virus. So the more people who know about the drug, the better.

More broadly, the more people like Oliver and Connor we see on television, the better. After all, folks deserve to see themselves reflected back in their entertainment. HTGAWM, like all shows in the Shondaland universe, has taken care to feature a diverse cast that spans ethnicities and sexual preferences. It was about time that also included HIV-positive individuals and the people who love them.