Karl Schmid, host of ABC’s On The Red Carpet, kept his HIV-positive status a secret for a decade, but then decided to put the fear behind him by going public in March last year.
Exactly a year since Schmid disclosed his status to the world, he spoke to The Citizen about his reaction to the diagnosis, the public perception of people living with the virus and why his reporting from the recent Oscars red carpet as an openly HIV-positive celebrity was so important.
Speaking from Los Angeles, he recounted how he received the news that he was now one of the millions of people living with HIV around the world.
“I was first diagnosed in October 2007 while living in London. The clinic was across from my office so I thought I’d just run over, get a quick test and head back to work.
“I’d been getting tested there for years so didn’t really think there’d be anything different.”
His result registered positive. He had the test redone a few more times to make sure. Struggling to pull himself together before walking back into his office, Schmid recalled that the only thought going through his 27-year-old mind was: “Oh god, how could I do this to my parents.”
Being in a relationship at the time, Schmid would at least have the support of his boyfriend after the diagnosis – or so he thought.
“My partner told me there was no point in us carrying on as I was now ‘dangerous’. This broke my heart. As a result, I haven’t pursued a serious relationship since.”
In their working paper, Reckless Vectors: The Infecting “Other” in HIV/ Aids Law, researchers Heather Worth, Cindy Patton and Diane Goldstein highlighted the fear and risks associated with disclosing one’s HIV status.
The team said there were many reasons why people did not disclose, including fear of domestic violence, fear of family or partner abandonment and community rejection.
Schmid said: “The stigma within the gay community was especially tough. I’ve had drinks thrown in my face and have been told I deserved it when I revealed my status to someone I was interested in.”
Even today, for countless people with HIV, the ensuing stigma and related violence make disclosure a situation of damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
Research from Africa indicated that fear of stigma and violence remained one of the main barriers to people making use of voluntary counselling, testing and treatment services.
This fear also reflected the limited power that HIV-positive people have in taking control of their infection.
Schmid said his very public disclosure, while unplanned, was his own way of taking control of the narrative. “I’d been following an Instagram feed called The Aids Memorial and purchased a T-shirt as part of their fundraising efforts.
“It hung in my wardrobe for some time. Then, one afternoon, I was going out with some friends and threw it on. While out, I asked a friend to get a picture of me in in the shirt so I could share it on The Aids Memorial Instagram feed. I didn’t have a story about losing someone close to me with HIV, so I told my story instead.”
Not thinking anything of it, he hit send and went to bed. The next day everything changed. As he was a familiar face on TV screens across the US and other parts of the globe, Schmid’s Instagram post immediately went viral. The native Australian wasn’t sure how to respond to the thousands of people reaching out to him to thank him for his honesty.
“I’m still shocked that anyone really cared about what I had to say. It was a total accident.”
That was a year ago and since then Schmid has become a lot more confident as a media celebrity and how he could use his HIV-positive status to help eradicate the stigma. At the recent Academy Awards, he again revealed his status – this time to millions of people across the globe.
“I’ve been very lucky to work for a television network in the US like ABC. In 2019, there’s no reason why anyone should live in fear of an HIV-positive person or the virus itself.
“Having a platform like the Oscars given to me by ABC allowed me to showcase not only how Hollywood has recognised HIV over the years, but to also put a face to HIV.”
Since the advent of HIV and Aids, the Academy Awards has given recognition to the fight against the disease, as well those documenting it and portraying people living with the virus.
The documentary Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt won the Best Documentary Oscar in 1990, Tom Hanks won the Best Actor award for Philadelphia and Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto scooped Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for Dallas Buyers Club.
This year, Rami Malek won the Best Actor award and Richard E Grant was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Both had played famously HIV-positive, real-life characters: Malek as Freddy Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody and Grant as Jack Hock in Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Whether or not you agree with the message of these films, that they focused on characters with HIV, putting them into the mainstream, means HIV is on our radar.
“It’s time we have a new and very real conversation about what it means to be HIV-positive in this day and age.
“Hopefully, by telling my story I’m also helping to facilitate that a little,” said Schmid.