The entertainment industry needs to play a bigger, bolder role in creating characters with HIV and AIDS. That was the message at a SAG-AFTRA discussion panel Wednesday night.
Organized to commemorate World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, the discussion featured "Moonlight" writer Tarell Alvin McCraney, TV producer and writer Dr. Neal Baer and trans activist Chandi Moore, among others.
"We really believe the entertainment industry played a huge role at the beginning of this epidemic, and it can play a huge role again, right when we need that extra shot," Joel Goldman, managing director of the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS foundation, said during the panel.
He thinks viewers who see stories about people with HIV or AIDS are more likely to get treatment for the disease.
Goodman also asserted that actors and producers in Hollywood led the national conversation about the disease in the 1980s but haven't been as prominent in recent years. He urges storytellers to use to their platforms to educate more viewers about HIV/AIDS.
According to UNAIDS, the number of new HIV infections in adults each year hasn't changed much over the past decade. Even with more treatment options, the number of new HIV infections each year has hovered around 2 million cases.
"I think there’s a general feeling in the U.S. that HIV is not something that’s still a major issue," he said. "We’ve been stagnant," Goldman tells KPCC.
At the panel, McCraney, whose film "Moonlight" is an early Oscar favorite, spoke about how the movie was influenced by his personal experiences with the disease.
"My mother was diagnosed," he said, "and she couldn't even tell me at the time."
Now, as a writer, he feels a responsibility to represent HIV on screen. McCraney urged other producers to do the same.
"We have a responsibility in that way to engage the community and give those heroes to the people,” he said. “The stories are there, they just don’t make it to where we can actually see them and [the viewers] can reflect.”
Dr. Baer, also on Wednesday's panel, wrote one of the first HIV+ characters featured on a prime time scripted show. In 1996, physician's assistant Jeanie Boulet on "ER" became one of the first TV characters who didn't die after her diagnosis.
"I wanted to do a story that showed a different point of view," he said. "We were able to really explore what it meant and all the fears that came along with it."
Following the revelation of Boulet's HIV status, "ER's" producers did a study on viewer's reactions — and more than half of the show's regular viewers said they learned about important health issues from the show.
"There's a way change can come about by telling these stories," he said. "[With ER], we were articulating the battles that were going on in the country."
The panelists applauded current shows discussing HIV/AIDS but acknowledged they were few and far between. In an episode of "Transparent," supporting character Shea shares her HIV status with her male, hetero romantic interest — only to have him freak out.
In"How to Get Away with Murder," two of the show's main characters dealt with an unexpected HIV diagnosis during the latest season.
Jason Stuart, an activist and actor who spoke at the panel, said he couldn't name any other shows off the top of his head.
"Having a disease is not something we want to discuss in general, whether it's in our personal lives or in our stories" Stuart said. "But a lot of people have gotten their info from us. And it makes a lot of sense."