“I’m HIV positive” – not a line I was expecting to hear whilst watching Emmerdale a week ago, they’d kept this storyline quiet from the online spoiler pages and press, but I had an immediate and instinctual feeling that this was a good thing.
There are many reasons why this storyline is important. Firstly it isn’t conforming to modern stereotypes society holds of the ‘typical’ HIV patient. Val isn’t a gay man, a black man/ woman or an intravenous drug user. Val is a middle aged, white and married woman living in the countryside ‘up north’ not a council estate in one of our major cities. She’s not portrayed as someone outstandingly clever but nor is she pictured as stupid. Val has a husband, grown up children, one of whom is gay. She runs a bed and breakfast business, in essence she’s really rather normal.
And that’s the fundamental message that HIV activists, advocates and charities strive to get across to the general public. HIV does not care about gender, sex, sexuality, race, religion or class. HIV can and does happen to anyone. Val’s story is a great way of provoking the subject of HIV to a large proportion of British society who might not usually think about it. People do not picture HIV and an older married woman in a rural setting. This story has the potential to reach out to the public and address their sexual health, not just HIV but other STIs as well. It can remind people that no matter whom they are or where they live they are still at some risk of these diseases and viruses and that they should regularly have sexual health checks.
Of course not all the feedback was positive regarding the story; many younger people on Twitter were quick to speak out about the reasons Val ‘had AIDS’. There were many comments about her being a ‘slut’ or a ‘slag’ and unfortunately whilst these comments are still common place they’ll always be stigma attached to the virus and to those who live with it. And whilst there is stigma people will continue to be afraid of getting tested.
As for the ‘AIDS’ references, I hope the writers are able to make known the difference between HIV and AIDS. We still don’t know the outcome for Val at the moment; I’m hoping they don’t drag out her positive or negative diagnosis for much longer.
It sounds very weird to say so, but I hope she is HIV positive. It would be great to have a larger than life soap character deal with the virus on our screens, and to show the public how normal a life you can lead. No doubt the story will have ‘ups and downs’ and there is the matter of whether or not she will tell her husband what’s happened as well.
When I was younger EastEnders (another British soap) had a HIV positive character in Mark Fowler, a straight man who contracted HIV from his girlfriend. His final on screen scene was of him riding off on his motor bike, escaping his family and friends to die alone. When I first disclosed my status to my friends they immediately pictured the same image, me leaving them within a few years to die. That episode was aired in 2003 and within the soap it was April 2004 that Mark finally passed away, without his friends or loved ones there with him.
That story and those final images still remain in the British people’s minds today, ten years later, but in the past decade so much has changed. We NEED a new HIV positive character in mainstream TV to dispel the associations we have with Marks character and to educate the public as to where HIV care and life with the virus is today in 2014.
I really hope this story gives courage and strength to more heterosexual people living with the virus: there are many blogs and twitter accounts like my own, written by young HIV positive gay men, it would be great to see more of the same from more woman, straight men, people who live out in the sticks or simply don’t conform to societies common preconception of a HIV positive person.
Not everyone is going to agree with how Val’s journey unfolds, because all HIV positive people adapt and grow differently upon finding out the news. Her character isn’t going to be able to represent us all, but if she is HIV positive she has the potential, with the right and factually correct writing, to be a great fictional ambassador for all us living with HIV.