Before Charlie Sheen, They Went Public With HIV

Before Charlie Sheen, They Went Public With HIV

Charlie Sheen’s announcement on Tuesday’s Today show that he is HIV-positive was shocking, but when Hollywood activist Elizabeth Glaser and tennis great Arthur Ashe announced their diagnoses of HIV 25 years ago, it was stunning. At the time, AIDS, which eventually killed both Ashe and Glaser, was incurable. And HIV was still incorrectly thought of as a disease of homosexuals and injection drug users.

Just as Sheen was outed by the National Enquirer prior to his Today appearance, it had discovered Glaser’s diagnosis in 1989. USA Today had learned about Ashe in 1992. Both celebrities preempted these disclosures by going public themselves before these publications could.

Still, these coerced decisions raised an essential question: Do ill celebrities have the right to privacy or should their very public lives be an open book? Sheen’s news reminds us that this question has not gone away.

Glaser, a teacher and museum curator who was married to Hollywood actor Paul Michael Glaser, had contracted HIV through a blood transfusion in 1981 during the birth of her first child, Ariel. At that time, what would soon become AIDS was known as gay-related immune deficiency or GRID, a wasting and fatal disease that affected predominantly homosexual men. The blood supply was contaminated with what doctors would eventually call the HIV virus.

The Glasers had a second child, Jake, in 1984. They did not know anything was wrong until 1985, when Ariel got sick. It took several months for doctors to arrive at the seemingly inexplicable diagnosis of AIDS. Elizabeth Glaser had probably infected her daughter through breast feeding. Jake was also HIV-positive, having contracted the disease in utero.

What followed was an astounding saga, documented in Elizabeth Glaser’s 1991 autobiography, In the Absence of Angels. Ariel lived until 1988, having been one of the first children to receive intravenous azidothymidine (AZT). Meanwhile, Elizabeth became the most aggressive pediatric AIDS activist in the country.

“I had just lost one child,” Glaser later wrote. “The last thing I was going to do was lose another.”

Using Hollywood connections to meet with both President Ronald Reagan and surgeon general C. Everett Koop, she founded the Pediatric AIDS Foundation, which would raise millions of dollars to study the disease.

All of this was done secretly, however. Elizabeth Glaser had not gone public. Two of her friends were the public heads of the foundation. Reagan, Koop, the Glasers’ friends and those involved in the charity work kept quiet.

But everything unraveled in August 1989 when a reporter from the National Enquirer called the Glaser home saying that the tabloid was planning to run a “very sad story” about the family. The Glasers immediately contacted a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, which published an article, “Breaking a Silence,” two weeks later.

Elizabeth Glaser was furious at what had happened. “How could any human being be doing this?” she later recounted. “It was unethical, immoral, a total outrage.”

Arthur Ashe also became infected with HIV by a blood transfusion. In Ashe’s case it occurred in 1983, when, at the young age of 40, he underwent his second heart bypass operation.

Ashe learned of the diagnosis in 1988 when he developed an unusual infection in his brain known as toxoplasmosis, meaning Ashe already had AIDS. The infection was treatable but AIDS was not. Ashe, having retired from tennis, continued his extensive efforts as a philanthropist and activist. Like Glaser, he shared his news only with his family and a small circle of friends.

Ashe’s moment of truth came in April 1992. Doug Smith, a childhood friend and a tennis writer for USA Today, paid a visit to Ashe at the behest of his editor, who had heard that Ashe was HIV-positive. “Is it true?” Smith asked.

Ashe equivocated. But he was furious. “[T]he anger was building in me,” he later wrote in his autobiography Days of Grace, “that this newspaper, any newspaper or part of the media, could think that it had a right to tell the world that I had AIDS.”

Like Glaser, Ashe took the bull by the horn. The next day, before USA Today decided to publish, he held a press conference at HBO headquarters and announced his diagnosis to a packed room of reporters.

For the next several days, the Ashe story was front-page news as the media avidly debated the public’s right to know. “Journalists serve the public by reporting news, not hiding it,” wrote one defender of USA Today. But a critic argued the opposite: “There was no public need to know, or right to know.” Most Americans took Ashe’s side. 95% of calls to USA Today were critical.

AIDS in 2015 is not like AIDS in the 1990s. Today the disease is largely treatable. Yet AIDS, with its strong associations to illicit behaviors, like promiscuous sex, still titillates.

Indeed, Sheen’s partying lifestyle—presumably the cause of his AIDS—makes him a much less sympathetic figure than either Glaser or Ashe. Yet Sheen insists he has always practiced safe sex and that he always has disclosed his diagnosis to his partners.

Once outed, Glaser and Ashe spent their remaining days as AIDS activists. Glaser was able to work openly for her foundation. At the 1992 Democratic National Convention, she gave a moving speech about Ariel that personalized a disease that many Americans feared. Ashe gave speeches around the country, emphasizing the toll that AIDS was taking on African-American communities.

So did the press have the right to out Charlie Sheen who, although a celebrity, is also a private citizen? Let the debate commence. Either way, here’s hoping that his disclosure—like those of Glaser and Ashe—ultimately does good.

Originally published on forbes.com on November 17, 2015.

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