As chat-up lines go, it’s not what you’d call romantic. Which is why Karl Schmid vividly remembers the time a date asked to see his medical records.
And then there was the incident when he had water thrown over him and that other time he was called “dangerous”.
Yet, the only thing Schmid was guilty of was telling the truth about a chronic health condition which, he said, is as manageable as diabetes.
“The problem is stigma and stigma is real and dangerous,” he said.
Schmid, originally from Victoria, is a familiar a face on US TV screens where he works as an entertainment journalist for the American ABC network, reporting from red carpets including the Oscars and Grammys.
Earlier this year, he made the decision to publicly announce he was HIV-positive, 11 years after his diagnosis.
He told news.com.au it was “difficult to believe” that there were not more people in the public eye in Australia who had HIV, the virus that if left untreated can lead to AIDS. Modern medications means that few people with the virus are ever likely to progress to that stage.
Furthermore, the medications are so effective that people with the virus who have their condition managed with sustained treatment cannot transmit HIV during sex.
Schmid is back in Australia for Christmas, his first visit since he decided to tell his American viewers that he had the chronic illness.
Beneath a picture of him wearing an AIDS Memorial T-shirt, he wrote: “I’m a 37-year-old HIV+ man who has been poz for almost 10 years.
“I may be on TV, but at the end of the day I’m just an average guy who wants what we all want. To be accepted and loved by our friends and family and to be encouraged by our peers.”
The post went viral and led to extensive media coverage.
‘THE GUY WITH AIDS’
Reflecting on his decision, Schmid said he had be warned that coming out as HIV-positive might not be positive for his career.
“I was concerned professionally. I had friends who work in television who said I shouldn’t because, ‘You don’t want to become known as the guy with AIDS.’
“I said, ‘First of all, I don’t have AIDS,’ but it is true that people hear ‘HIV-positive’ and they think someone is dirty or promiscuous. Some have even suggested I deserved it because it relates back to sex and god forbid any of us should talk about sex, never mind most of us enjoy it.”
Schmid is now part of a campaign called U=U which is spreading the word that undetectable levels of HIV means the virus is untransmittable.
While in Australia, Schmid has been meeting with organisations such as ASHM, the peak body for health professionals who work in HIV, which has provided U=U guidelines to doctors to reduce the stigma people with the virus face.
He has also spent time with the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation, a Sydney charity that provides financial and practical assistance to disadvantaged people living with HIV.
The U=U message has reached top politicians. In the run-up to World AIDS Day this year, on December 1, Health Minister Greg Hunt acknowledged the campaign and said that people with an undetectable viral load “have effectively no risk of sexually transmitting the virus”.
According to the University of New South Wales’ Kirby Institute, around 26,000 Australians are living with HIV.
In 2017, 963 new cases were identified, a 5 per cent annual decline. New transmissions between men continue to fall but are rising via heterosexual intercourse.
DRINKS THROWN IN MY FACE
Schmid said that since he made his announcement he’s not had any negative feedback professionally and is popping up on US TV screens just as frequently as before.
In his private life, he’s been open about his status for far longer. And it’s been the reaction off air that has been most dispiriting, often from other gay men.
“I’ve had drinks thrown in my face, I’ve been told I’m dangerous, I’ve even had someone burst into tears.”
He said deciding when to tell a potential partner had been a minefield. He would often wait a few dates until it was clear it was getting serious. But then he would be chastised for not announcing he had HIV at the start of the very first date.
He said if sex was on the cards, it was the responsibility of each partner to ask questions.
‘YOU COULD BE LYING’
Then there was the guy he met on dating app Tinder.
“We’d had a month’s worth of messaging and speaking on the phone and I told him I was HIV-positive but undetectable.
“He said, ‘Thanks for disclosing, now I just want to see a copy of your last lab results.’”
Schmid said he was dumbfounded by the demand.
“He said to me that while I said I was undetectable, I could by lying. I went very quiet and told him I was going to head off now and he should think about what he’d just asked me.
“I said, ‘I haven’t asked you to present your last STI result. I think the fact I’ve been honest about my status should tell you what kind of person I am.’”
NEED TO TALK ABOUT S-E-X
Schmid still remembers the infamous 1987 Grim Reaper ad which has been criticised for stigmatising people with HIV. He said the ad was what was needed at the time to quickly tell Australians about the virus.
“But those ads have carried on in our psyche and we need to have a new conversation because the problem is stigma and stigma is real and dangerous,” he said.
Schmid joins a small number of well-known people in the US who have spoken about their HIV status. That club incudes retried basketballer Magic Johnson and actor Charlie Sheen. In the UK, several MPs have been open about their HIV status.
In Australia, probably the most high-profile person who has HIV and has spoken about it is gymnast and Olympic silver medallist Jai Wallace. There are few others.
Schmid would like to see more people talk about having HIV.
“It’s like coming out (as gay) — you have to do it when you’re ready.
“But I would find it very difficult to think that now there isn’t a single person working in, say, entertainment or sport in Australia who isn’t HIV-positive.
“Visibility matters so the more we can normalise this and have a conversation about it without freaking out, the better,” he said.
“It would be nice if we get to the place one day when the three letters ‘H-I-V’ don’t put the fear of god into people.
“It should be handled no differently to diabetes or other illnesses and the only difference is because of those three other letters, S-E-X.”