I'm Positive: Documentary special. 7 p.m. Saturday on MTV. Dr. Drew Pinsky will host a special with the three subjects of the film after its broadcast on mtv.com.
If you don't know that Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day, you're probably not alone.
In spite of the fact that 1.1 million Americans are HIV positive, that 1 in 5 of those with HIV is unaware of being infected, that two-fifths of all new HIV infections in the United States annually are among people ages 13-29 and that there is still no cure for AIDS, there doesn't seem to be the general awareness of the disease that there was in the decade after it was first identified in 1981.
In other words, we're taking it for granted, and that is one of the reasons it's still spreading, despite everything we already know about it.
One reason for that, ironically, is the "good news" brought by medical advances to control the disease, which was once considered a death sentence. Because millions of Americans are not just living with AIDS, but, truly, living healthy lives in spite of AIDS, the epidemic only seems to make headlines when the story is about how the disease impacts less developed countries.
World AIDS Day
All of this makes World AIDS Day at least as important as ever, if not more so: Just because the disease can be controlled by medication and a healthy lifestyle doesn't mean it's gone away or that it's somehow not as important anymore to know the HIV status of your partner.
"I'm Positive," a one-hour documentary produced by Dr. Drew Pinsky and Lo Bosworth, in conjunction with the Kaiser Family Foundation, is remarkable at first by how much it resembles other reality shows about people in their 20s having the kinds of everyday problems with relationships we're used to seeing on MTV. That's a good thing, in a way, because it reinforces the message that people with HIV go through all the ups and downs anyone else will experience in life.
Take Kelly, for example, a young woman in Santa Monica who contracted the virus through an ex-boyfriend. After a period of panic and depression, marked by repeated playing of Sarah McLachlan's "Angel," she came to terms with her situation, set about adjusting her lifestyle (by quitting drinking, for one thing) and getting on with her life.
At the moment, that means dealing with her boyfriend, Aaron, who would be a pain in the butt for any woman, regardless of her HIV status. When Kelly tries to tell him she needs some space, he gets even pushier and more clingy.
Finally, she agrees to have dinner with him to discuss their relationship. He launches a singularly whiny passive-aggressive attack that only makes us wonder why she ever gave the guy a second chance, much less, as she acknowledges to a friend, a seventh chance.
The problem Kelly has with Aaron really has nothing to do with her HIV status. She is simply a single young woman trying to negotiate a challenging relationship and reluctantly realizing that her boyfriend is a loser.
We also meet Otis, a young man from Dallas who was terrified to tell his family he was gay and then, later on, even more terrified to tell them he was HIV positive. Although his family has been supportive, especially his dad, Otis Sr., who agreed to pose with his son for an AIDS awareness billboard campaign in Dallas, Otis Jr. knew the double whammy of being gay and HIV positive could be challenging in the African American community.
Otis gets to show his dad one of the billboards for the first time and it's a deeply eloquent moment as Otis Sr. looks up at the billboard and says proudly, "My son right by my side, and I'm by your side."
Stephanie, a young woman who lives in Fayetteville, N.C., had adapted well to life with HIV. She takes her medication daily and will for the rest of her life. "There's no shame in it," she shrugs.
As far as dating is concerned or any kind of social interaction, she lives her life as any young woman would. "There's no stamp on my forehead that says I'm positive, until I tell you," she says.
But, like Otis, Stephanie isn't immune to the emotional truths of being HIV positive. When her mother comes to visit, they spend time looking at old photographs of the family before her mother and father split up. It brings Stephanie to tears.
No death sentence
When Stephanie first told her mother, Melissa, that she was HIV positive, her mom was shattered.
"To me it was one word: death," Melissa says.
But over time, Melissa has not only learned to admire her daughter's resolve and strength, but has also learned that HIV is not a death sentence.
The take-away here is that HIV will affect a person's life, but it can be compartmentalized with the right attitude, with proper medication and healthy choices. The film obviously endorses the importance of being safe, no matter what your HIV status is, and getting tested regularly.
The three subjects of "I'm Positive" are great and credible role models for others who may be HIV positive, but also a reminder that while the shame and stigma of HIV may have lessened over the years, that should prompt everyone to know the facts of HIV, know how to talk to partners about the virus and how to prevent its spread.
For information on AIDS testing and prevention, go to www.GYTnow.com.
David Wiegand is The San Francisco Chronicle's executive features editor and TV critic. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @WaitWhat_TV