On ‘Élite’ and HIV Representation in Pop Culture

Élite, the Spanish teen drama that’s been compared favorably to shows like Gossip Girl, hit Netflix back in October. Produced by Zeta Producciones — giving the company a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes for its very first series — Élite features plenty of classic teen show tropes, from slow-motion kisses, epic school brawls, and parents who just don’t understand, to drug use, date rape, and teen pregnancy. The show manages to avoid the feeling of an after-school special, and remains both sexy and thought-provoking. Élite is especially thoughtful, however, when it comes to representing living with HIV.

The story, packed with a huge ensemble cast, follows three impoverished students who are given scholarships to attend an upscale private school after their local school collapses. Most of the rich kids are offended by their presence. They make sure the poor kids remember their status. One manic pixie dream girl, Marina, embraces the new kids because she, too, knows what it feels to be an outsider.

Marina contracted HIV with a sexual partner a year before the story begins. Her brother and his friends beat her boyfriend until he nearly died. Élite‘s writing team has done an excellent job of removing a lot of the stigma surrounding STI’s: Marina works hard to take care of her body, is on meds, attends therapy, and gets regular blood tests to ensure that the infection is undetectable. She gets tested regularly, and knows she has a low chance of passing the disease to any of her sexual partners.

Her family, however, views her disease as a death sentence; if not from life, then from the social elite. Though Marina is adamant that the sex she had when she contracted the disease was consensual, her family is insistent that she was drugged and raped. When she tries to discuss her feelings on what happened, they shut her down. Embarrassed by her need to understand what’s happening to her, they label Marina crazy and avoid her.

When it began in the United States, the HIV and AIDS crisis was ignored by both the government and greater culture. Early contractors were forced to live on the fringe of society. Shame, judgment, and isolation awaited early carriers. Most pop culture references to HIV showcase this era of the disease — films like Philadelphia, Dallas Buyers Club, and Gia.

In television, HIV+ representation is often limited to guest roles on hospital procedurals. The best representation of positive characters is currently happening on FX’s Pose. Set in the mid-’80s, the show doesn’t lean heavily on despair and death. Instead, survival, friendship, and prevention are the heart of the story.

But Pose isn’t a teen drama, though there are certainly elements of the genre throughout the show. While everyone needs to be practicing safe sex, educating and informing teens early is the best way to prevent further transmission. That’s exactly what Élite does: It encourages teens to educate themselves.

The internet can remove a lot of second-hand embarrassment when trying to understand the ramifications of HIV. Marina’s crush, Samuel, is dedicated to learning everything he can to be a good boyfriend to Marina. When they consummate their relationship, they are both informed and safe.  

Stateside, contributing factors for the rise in STDs include lack of sexual education, doctors see patients without asking them if they’d like to be tested, and patients tend not to ask for the tests. Therefore, many carriers go undiagnosed for years and continue to spread the disease. Worst of all, federal funding for education programs and STD prevention have decreased by 40% over the last fifteen years.

Of course, there are many potential complications that follow unsafe sex. Sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise globally. According to the executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, David Harvey, “The United States continues to have the highest STD rates in the industrialized world. We are in the midst of an absolute STD public health crisis in this country. It’s a crisis that has been in the making for years.”

The last scripted teen drama that explored stories of HIV characters was A Different World in 1991. Since then, safe sex lessons are told through accidental pregnancy. Frequently, women receive the brunt of the punishment for shared transgressions. Entire shows like The Secret Life of the American Teenager predicate on that punishment. 

Unfortunately, Marina suffers the same punishment. She has unprotected sex with Samuel’s brother, Nano. Isolated and reckless, Marina falls in love with both brothers. Élite never slut shames Marina for her decision, though. If her family had been willing to listen to her, she wouldn’t have felt the need to search for love in all the wrong places. The escape drugs provided wouldn’t have been so alluring. Love could have led Marina back home.  

Instead, when Marina discovers she’s pregnant, she decides to run away with Nano. They plan to run away to Morocco and live by the sea. Though it sounds romantic, Marina is sixteen and Nano is at least in his early 20s. Nano aggressively pursues her and encourages her to leave everything she knows. Once again, isolation pushes Marina into dangerous situations.

She doesn’t make it to Morocco. Marina is murdered in the high school. She becomes another victim of an insecure and wounded man. There’s no resolution of her death. That will have to wait until season 2.

Elite

While Marina’s death is devastating, she chose to live her life fearlessly. Three times throughout the show, Marina reveals her positive status. The first time Marina tells Samuel as they work on a group project. Marina tells Samuel hoping it will drive him away. On a subconscious level, she believes she’s bad for him. But Samuel is unphased. He loves her and wants to know how to make it work.

Distressed at his reaction to Marina’s status, Samuel tells his brother Nano. What Samuel doesn’t know, of course, is that Nano drunkenly slept with Marina without reaction. Nano drives to Marina’s house and demands to know why she didn’t tell him herself. He says he doesn’t care, but the response isn’t exactly comforting. Marina repeats that the HIV is undetectable.

The final time Marina comes out is in the middle of class. Desperate to talk to Marina, Samuel sends her a text message that includes her status. When he’s caught with his phone out during class, the instructor forces Samuel to read the message out loud. The air evaporates from the classroom. Silently, judgment and disgust bombard Marina in the claustrophobic classroom. The little bit of privacy and control vanishes in an instant.

Marina pushes herself up from her desk and addresses her class. “I was infected a year ago,” she begins. “I suppose people are going to talk about this. I just think you should know all of the facts before you do.” Her voice wavers as she repeats the same facts she’s told every single person who learns of her status.

Her exhaustion is palpable. It’s not the HIV that wears Marina down, it’s a lack of understanding. Even Nadia, a Muslim classmate exhausted by the judgment she receives at school and home, is initially disgusted when she learns of Marina’s status. Later, Nadia admits that she simply hadn’t ever been around someone who was HIV positive. Her ignorance scared her. Ignorance alienated Marina from everyone who wanted to love her. The best thing viewers can take away from Élite is to get to know someone with HIV. It’s not a death sentence, and when managed carefully, there isn’t anything to fear.

Rick Ross’ Homophobic Line on “What’s Free” Is So Bad, Even the Dictionary Dragged Him

In its piece on the creation of Meek Mill’s “What’s Free” — the standout track on the rapper’s fourth studio album — Rolling Stone referred to Meek and Jay-Z’s verses as “two of the best, most thoughtful verses of the year.” The publication did not have similarly kind things to say about the third performer on the track’s contribution. Suffice it to say Rick Ross’ verse is tonally dissonant on the song. But that’s hardly the only problem.

“Then there’s Ross, who sounds like he’s rapping on a different song,” Rolling Stone writer Elias Light says. “He covers his usual topics — amassing wealth, his prowess in the drug trade — before pivoting to blast an unnamed rapper, who sounds a lot like Tekashi 6ix9ine: “Screaming ‘gang gang,’ now you wanna rap / Racketeering charges caught him on a tap / Lookin’ for a bond, lawyers wanna tax / Purple hair got them faggots on your back.”

Yes, you read that correctly. In 2018, Rick Ross is still dropping the f-word in a verse.

Though the use of the slur would be jarring enough on its own, Ross’ verse’s placement next to one of Jay’s is the particularly perplexing part. Jay’s mother, Gloria Carter, is a lesbian. On his last album, 4:44, Jay powerfully and memorably reflected on this in the song “Smile.”

Neither Jay nor Meek responded to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment about Ross’ verse. It’s worth noting, though, that the former rapper did break a year-plus-long Twitter silence to respond to another news item about “What’s Free” — a perceived diss toward Kanye West in Jay’s own verse.

One particularly powerful entity did respond on Twitter, though: Dictionary.com. Whoever runs the account fully dragged Ross on Friday morning, saying, “We know what free is, Rick Ross. We also know that the f-word is a contemptuous term used to refer to a gay man.”

You know you fucked up when the dictionary is dragging you.

Image via Getty

‘Quiet Heroes’ Celebrates the Lesbian Couple Who Helped Hundreds of HIV/AIDS Patients in the ’80s

Dr. Kristen Ries moved to Salt Lake City on the same day the CDC first described HIV/AIDS as affecting gay men in 1981. A year later, after setting up her own practice, she had her first patient come in with what she thought looked like the disease. When she reached out to other medical professionals for guidance, they told her they had no interest in helping. She was on her own.

By the mid-1980s, HIV/AIDS was the top killer of men in the conservative, largely Mormon-based city, which struggled with supporting HIV/AIDS patients. Dr. Ries, whose specialty was in infectious diseases, becamse the go-to doctor in Utah, but couldn’t keep up with the demand. Soon, she met Maggie Snyder, a nurse-turned-physician’s assistant who she became romantically involved with, and the partnership evolved into a lifeline for those living with (and dying from) HIV/AIDS. Their work with Holy Cross Hospital and the nuns that ran the only hospital ward in the city that would take them in are the focus of the documentary Quiet Heroes.

“This is a cultural touchstone for the LGBT community in Salt Lake,” says co-director Jared Ruga. “The story in this film becomes something that the community is rallying around … a celebration honoring the work that Kristen and Maggie and the sisters of the Holy Cross and really the LGBT community came together to achieve in some of our darkest moments.”

Co-directors Ruga and Amanda Stoddard spoke with INTO about the love story that is Quiet Heroes.

INTO: How did this story come to you?

Jared Ruga: So I discovered this story through a law professor of mine who was working through the university that set up a special collection where they would archive materials from Kristen and Maggie’s practice, the medical practice that I found out was the only one that treats AIDS at the height of the crisis. And I thought it was a great story, wanted it to be more accessible to more people than the special collection at the library could attract, so I asked if anyone was making a film or writing a book or doing any sort of like mass media rendering of the story and the answer was no. And so I said, “OK, let’s get in there and see what we can do.”

I was introduced to Dr. Kristen Ries and Maggie Snyder and immediately fell in love with them and upon hearing more about their story from others in my network who lived through that experience. I knew that it was something that needed to be memorialized for the sake of preserving that history but it also needed to be propagated to my generation who really doesn’t know that much. I’m 29 and, you know, the HIV crisis is like a ghost story to a lot of people my age. It’s something that happened in the past and is scary and terrible but we survived it and now we don’t have to worry about it anymore, right? But that’s not true.

There are lots of reasons to still be concerned about HIV and we really haven’t made that much progress toward a cure. We may be coming closer to a vaccine but you know, 35 years of research and we’re still not there and so and then we have other advancements in medicine like PrEP that can help prevent it but that relies on the medical system complying. You know, fortunately here at the University of Utah, we’ve got the state’s first free PrEP clinic opening up now and so that’s pretty fantastic, but people need to know about it and then once they have the free PrEP, they got to take it according to you know all the medical guidelines and so there’s a lot that goes into preventing and managing HIV and I feel like often my generation can be a little cavalier about it and I wanted to bring a historical story into the present to put it back on everyone’s radar.

In the last year or two, more HIV/AIDS narratives are coming out — I’m thinking about BPM and 1985  — and I’m wondering why you think that may be happening right now.

JR: Well, I think there’s that phenomenon of multiple discovery where there’s something in the zeitgeist and a lot of people read that at the same time and they pursue it, but I think right now, particularly for the LGBT community and other communities, we feel under attack. The administration and the White House is openly hostile to the LGBT community and just about every out underrepresented demographic and the AIDS crisis was in a lot of ways a very similar attack. It was something that threatened, it was an existential threat against the community that the government wasn’t helping to mitigate, so we had to turn inward, circle the wagons, and take care of our own. And reminding ourselves that that’s possible and that you can make it through, even a terrible crisis like the height of AIDS. That’s a good reminder to have today in our political climate and I think that story still resonates. There are people out there who are willing to self-sacrifice to protect their own and to give compassionate and comprehensive medical care. It’s a nice example of bringing out the best in people in the worst of times.

This story is specific to Salt Lake City — through your research, did you find a lot of other people like Kristen and Maggie doing this work in other cities?

JR: Yes. I mean, they had to, right? Throughout Utah and really the Intermountain West, it was kind of Kristen and Maggie. But I’ve heard stories out of Minnesota and Iowa where similar things were happening. But really, it’s just, I think Quiet Heroes tells the story that’s a little more emblematic of what was happening across the entire country. You know, New York, LA, San Francisco, cities with large LGBT populations that had a little bit more political capital and a little bit more force behind them, they were more organized, they had more resources, and so they were able to kind of get on the map and they god they did because that’s what ultimately drew change. But that didn’t really help people in suburban bedroom communities and more rural areas and even small retro areas like Salt Lake. So we wanted to tell the story that was actually closer to the dominant experience that most people affected by the AIDS crisis went through.

Kristen and Maggie weren’t really closeted around the nuns, but they also didn’t bring up their relationship. It wasn’t something they discussed with them. You make an interesting parallel in the film about the nuns also having this sort of like repression of their own sexuality. How do you think that the relationships between Maggie and Kristen and the nuns were ultimately able to be so helpful to all of the patients?

Amanda Stoddard: Well, they were helpful because they could and I think that’s, I mean one thing that brings it back to present day, there are no places like Holy Cross hospital anymore. Not in Salt Lake. There’s nowhere that anyone can go and get treatment and have people treat them out of the goodness of their hearts anymore. Like, we’re in dire straits when it comes to healthcare and so this kind of shows a compassionate care model and why we need healthcare for all and those nuns, I mean, they were really, really special and I think when we talk about the film being about quiet heroes, it’s not just Kristen and Maggie. There were a lot of people that kind of stood up. It would have been really easy for us to focus on  Kristen and Maggie’s love story and make it about that but that’s not what the story was about. It was about people who went in and did the work at their own personal expense.

Quiet Heroes is just such a perfect name for the film because they seem so — they make their work seem so easy and it’s not an easy choice for some people. What was it like when you went to them and said you wanted to make a film about them? Were they open to it? How did they feel being the subject?

JR: They were a little shy at first; were kind of questioning “Why us?” To them, they were just doing their job. They were taking out the trash and stocking the grocery store shelves and counting beans, right? They weren’t saving lives every day and creating a sense of community and extended family for those who were exiled from everyone they knew. To them, they had a job to do and they just showed up and did it everyday and they didn’t quite understand why there was so much fanfare around what they dedicated their lives to do. But eventually, I think they warmed up a little bit and we told them, you know, it’s not just going to be about you. We’re also interviewing some of your former patients of families of patients and we’re making it about the time period and we really want to juxtapose it with today and show how some things have changed and some things haven’t and I think that got them more comfortable to open up and then beyond that, it’s really just building and maintaining the relationship, letting your subjects know that you got ethics as a filmmaker and you’re not going to misrepresent anything and you’re not going to make them look bad but you’re going to tell the truth in the most interesting way you can come up with.

AS: We were talking to them last week and their house is just filled with all this memorabilia from all of the patients that they served, and so they really had, once they felt they were doing, they trusted us, they also really wanted to honor those patients and I think we did that.

Were there any particular challenges in creating this and anything that was really difficult to show visually maybe or getting anything done?

AS: Yeah, it’s historical so you have a lot of interviews to work with. You don’t have a shortage. So it was a big challenge and also the story was really big, so if you look at it now and say this is what the story should always have been, but getting it to that point was really tough because there’s so many people that wanted to talk about Kristen and Maggie and how do we do this and tell this story in a way that honors them and honors what they did and also the other quiet heroes, the nuns, Paula, all of the people that participated but I think that the biggest challenge was trying to make it relevant to honor them but we’re trying to work around how to we make all of these interviews come to life.

JR: We spent a lot of time and effort figuring out the cadence of the film and the visual aesthetic and the music and how all of that would assemble into a complete package that would tell the story in a captivating way and really make people feel what it was like to be alive back then, for those who weren’t alive like me or were very young, or for those who were alive to kind of remind them of what it was like without getting into it being to sappy of maudlin. We didn’t want this to be sympathy porn or inspiration porn, right? That’s not interesting. That’s an easy path to take with a film about AIDS and we were highly resistant to doing it that way. So I think what we ended up with was a spree of hope and resilience that is an inspiration without feeling too inspirational.

Quiet Heroes is now available on Logo.

Indonesian City to Begin Fining People For ‘Immoral Same-Sex Acts’ and ‘Transvestite Activities’

An Indonesian city reportedly will begin fining individuals accused of “homosexual and transgender activities” in an attempted crackdown on the LGBTQ community.

Pariaman, a city in the Indonesian province of West Sumatra, passed a new law on Tuesday penalizing “immoral same-sex acts” and “transvestite activities” with a $70 fine. That total may not seem like much, but taking differences in per capita income into account, it’s more like $1,300 in the United States.

While homosexuality is not illegal in the majority Muslim nation, Pariaman City Council Chair Fitra Nora told The Guardian that LGBTQ people “will be subject to sanctions and fines if they disturb the public order.”

Deputy Mayor Mardison Mahyudin said the proposal resulted from “anxiety” toward LGBTQ people in the town of more than 80,000 people.

According to reports, the bylaws will be reviewed by West Sumatra Governor Irwan Prayitno within the next 15 days. During a Thursday meeting on the ordinance, he reportedly claimed leaders across the province are attempting to devise solutions to the “problem” of LGBTQ people.

“At a minimum, we’re trying to prevent the population from increasing,” Prayitno is alleged to have said.

Other cities are expected to follow suit by introducing their own laws.

While Indonesia was once known as a moderate safe haven for the LGBTQ people, these proposals follow a wave of increasing attacks on the community since 2016, including a series of raids on gay saunas, spas, and even private gatherings in Jakarta.

In October, two men in West Java were arrested for running a Facebook group for queer and trans locals looking to connect with others like them.

While Indonesia lacks colonial-era anti-sodomy laws like Malaysia and Singapore, the semi-independent province of Aceh is permitted to punish same-sex behavior under its Shariah codes. The laws drew international condemnation after gay couples were publicly flogged in May 2017 and July 2018 while crowds cheered.

Over a two-year period, an estimated 530 people faced corporal punishment for offenses related to homosexuality, adultery, and drinking alcohol.

Pariaman’s discriminatory “public order” laws were again met with widespread backlash from global advocacy groups. Andreas Harsono, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, suggested the proposal is unconstitutional.

“It’s a local ordinance that has no grounds on Indonesia’s constitution nor other national laws,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Earlier this year, INTO reported that Indonesia’s parliament floated nationwide legislation that would criminalize homosexuality under laws forbidding sex outside of marriage. As of now, that bill has stalled.

Image via Getty

Thirty Years of World AIDS Day And Combating HIV Stigma

The first World AIDS Day was observed on December 1, 1988. That year, more than 28,000 people died from AIDS-related causes. I was 12, probably somewhere in Philadelphia dancing and lip-synching to Paula Abdul, blissfully unaware that the epidemic would later alter my life in significant ways. The only HIV prevention that seemed to exist back then for young gay boys like me, were vocal demands to not get AIDS. As we mark the 30th Anniversary of World AIDS Day, the number of annual HIV-related deaths has dropped tremendously to around 6,500. While science has made strides in expanding HIV prevention, systematic stigma and shame continue to prohibit folks from leading safe and healthy lives, especially youth of color.

In many ways, the crack epidemic was the equalizer in our neighborhood. My mother had friends who were lawyers, blue collar workers, and business executives – all of whom were addicts. I watched them come and go as our one-room apartment became a revolving door. I never paid them much attention, choosing to retreat to the sounds of Paula Abdul, Janet, or Donna Summers. That all changed when Miss Tina walked in.

Miss Tina was Black, tall, muscular, and unapologetic about her sometimes revealing five o’clock shadow. Instead of studying for school tests, I studied Miss Tina. I’d ask her questions about her nail color and shoes, but what I desperately wanted to know was how to beat up the boys who called me “faggot” at school.

One night, I woke up to urgent whispers and cries from Miss Tina. “I think you need to go to the hospital,” I heard my mother say. I peeked through the sheet dividing our one-room apartment and saw Miss Tina’s bloodied and swollen face. I wanted to ask what happened, but even then, I knew. She got beat up for being herself, just like I got beat up at school.

As I grew older, Miss Tina and I developed our own friendship. We talked about the night that she showed up bloody in our apartment. She told me about the many times she showed up bloody somewhere. We talked about how she endured. She told me to never do drugs or get AIDS. She made me promise. I promised.

In 1996, Miss Tina died of AIDS complications. There was no wailing, no explicit mourning. People spoke about her death as matter of fact. I can’t say I blame them. By that time, there were an estimated 23 million people living with HIV worldwide. Trauma and shame meant many of us didn’t talk with our families about AIDS or death. Back then, demands to never get AIDS was the only HIV prevention there was to give young gay boys like myself.

It has been more than 20 years since Miss Tina’s passing, and I’ve been living with HIV for more than 10 of those years. Looking back, I now know that I didn’t break Miss Tina’s promise. She wasn’t really asking me to promise to abstain: She was telling me to live. Tina knew, even before I had officially “come out” to her, that I was in need of direction and helpful hints that could, and would, eventually save my life.

Now I have the privilege of providing LGBTQ youth the same direction and guidance that she once gifted me. I’m launching the first-ever National council of youth activists living with HIV, called Engaging Communities around HIV Organizing (ECHO), focused on combating rampant HIV stigma. We must end laws and policies which criminalize people living with HIV, and make sure every young person living with HIV is cared for and valued.

Today, I am older than Tina was when she died. Effective treatment and care have helped to make HIV a survivable diagnosis. We now even have PrEP, the daily pill that helps to prevent HIV infection. It all would seem like science fiction to Miss Tina and the little boy she unknowingly saved.