Advocates hope Queer Eye star's HIV-positive disclosure helps break stigma

Advocates at a Winnipeg fundraiser in support of HIV awareness and funding are hoping the recent revelation made by Queer Eye star Jonathan Van Ness about being HIV-positive will help break the stigma around and educate people about those living with the diagnosis.

Van Ness told The New York Times in an article published Saturday that, when he was 25, he fainted while working at a salon and went to Planned Parenthood to diagnosis his flu-like symptoms. There, he tested positive for HIV. 

"That day was just as devastating as you would think it would be," Van Ness, the grooming expert on the Netflix makeover show, wrote in his memoir Over the Top, which is set to be released on Tuesday and was quoted by the Times.

The now 32-year-old says he hopes his disclosure will help break the stigma around HIV, and that others will come out and join him as a "member of the beautiful HIV-positive community."

Barb Burkowski, an organizer of Sunday's Red Ribbon Walk & Run in Winnipeg, an event that aims to fight against HIV stigma and to raise money for programs and services for those living with HIV, says Van Ness coming out as HIV-positive can help those who aren't out. 

"We have people who have HIV and have a self-stigma where they don't want to come out," Burkowski told CBC News.

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"If we have people that come out on a bigger level, it's more likely that people will feel a little bit better."

Christine Bibeau, who has been living with HIV for 10 years, was a participant at Sunday's event.

"For a long time, I was a closet HIV-positive person," she told CBC News.

"One of the things I really remember was somebody close in my family, when I first had told them I was HIV-positive, right away phoned up somebody else because I had been at their baby shower and I held their baby. That kind of still sticks with me, 10 years later."

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Bibeau hopes to combat disinformation about HIV — Public Health Agency of Canada says HIV can't be spread by "casual contact" — noting she now has three children, all born after learning she was positive and all of whom are HIV-negative. She also said revelations like those made by Van Ness go a long way to helping.

"I would like to see more people being OK about being open about [being HIV-positive], because I think that comes into education," she said.

Kyle Voth, who also participated in the event to support the cause, agrees.

"I think it's a really brave thing to do," he told CBC News.

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"It's giving young people and both queer and straight people a really positive voice in [the HIV-positive] community about it. It's really great."

Brent Young participated in Sunday's event in drag. He isn't HIV-positive himself but said it is no longer the death sentence it once was and he also applauds Van Ness for coming out.

"He has the platform where he can actively crusade," he said.

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"It's also positive that other people can see this in the rest of the world, and say, 'Hey, somebody else has this too. I don't have to be alone any more."

As of 2016, there were more than 63,000 Canadians living with HIV, according to estimates released by the Public Health Agency of Canada last year.

Of those, an estimated 14 per cent were unaware or undiagnosed. 

It also says people taking appropriate amounts of antiretroviral treatment "pose effectively no risk of transmitting HIV infection to their sexual partner."