July 24, 2014
It's Time for a TV Dramedy Series About Life With HIV
by Christian Daniel Kiley
How one man's path from self-stigmatization to self-realization led him to produce Unsure/Positive.
Some people talk about their HIV diagnosis as a wake-up call; the moment they decided to straighten up and fly right, to live mindfully and deliberately. It was not so with me; and something tells me that I’m not alone. I can’t speak for other people living with HIV—in fact, I wouldn’t even try—but I’ll take this opportunity to tell you a bit about my experience and how it has led me to where I am now, working around-the-clock to produce Unsure/Positive. My hope is that creating a relatable, entertaining and potentially serialized TV narrative about life with HIV may give others a more complete sense of what it feels like to live with this “stupid gay disease,” and that the show will give them permission, ideally, to laugh about it. (For the record, I could have said this stupid straight disease. Or this stupid low-income disease. Or this stupid intravenous drug user disease—but like I said, I can only speak to my own experience.)
|Christian Daniel Kiley
When I was diagnosed with HIV in 2007, I experienced a high degree of self-stigmatization. I was convinced that carrying the virus made me “dirty,” “damaged”…unlovable. I looked in the mirror and told myself that the guy looking back at me was someone with nothing to lose. At that time, I didn’t feel comfortable telling friends, co-workers or even my immediate family about my diagnosis. I spent years flailing about, experimenting with the ubiquitous crystal meth “party scene,” making excuses instead of taking responsibility, and holding those around me at arm’s length. Five years passed in this limbo, and I found myself in a dark place.
It was only when I came out about my HIV status that I was able to discern a path toward peace. And when I did, I found a groundswell of support from my true friends, while a gradual distance developed between the fair-weather variety. At that point, I also felt something I hadn’t expected: hope. I found my way to mindful living with the help of a therapist, and regular exercise. I threw myself into my work. Slowly but surely, things turned around. I got better at including cliché in my own personal narrative. But in all seriousness—now I’m lucky enough to be productive, healthy and working on a project that is deeply important to me. (We’ve already shot the opening scene—the “cold open,” which you can watch online—and we’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the remaining production.)
Better yet, Unsure/Positive has become important to more people than just myself. I’m lucky to have a fantastic production team working on the project, as well as goodwill from the lovely people at AIDS Action Massachusetts, Fenway Community Health and, of course, POZ—among others. I conceived of this project as a series because, put simply, life with HIV tends to go on these days. And since I’ve never really seen a story about someone like myself, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering what it would feel like to have that experience.
Unlike a short or feature film, serialized narratives offer the chance to show a fuller life, one that deals with issues unrelated (and related) to being HIV positive. Using a combination of comedy and drama, Unsure/Positive will explore situations in the life of its protagonist, Kieran—situations that he and other HIV-positive people go through as they live on, and stay positive. (Pun absolutely intended, of course.) The primary goal of this series? Entertainment. If, along the way, we can expose and explore the complex social stigma of living with HIV? Well, that’s just gravy.
As long as we’re sharing, let me tell you another dark secret: I am a television addict, and I don’t plan to give it up any time soon. Why do I like TV so much, you ask? Well, it’s entertainment, of course, so it’s produced with an eye toward mass appeal. Now is a great time to love TV, as cable networks, digital distributors and independent web series are competing to be on the cutting-edge of content creation. Shows are becoming more specialized, more esoteric—the talented television series auteur is a pretty cool guy these days. The climate is just right. So I’ll repeat myself: It’s about time someone tells a story about an HIV-positive protagonist. (Unsure/Positive!)
This would be a shift from the existing paradigm that we see in the current media landscape. We’ve all seen Philadelphia, Longtime Companion and, more recently, Dallas Buyers Club—and each of these stories ends with the death of the protagonist. HBO’s film adaptation of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart is barely an exception because although the protagonist (basically an avatar for Kramer) lives, many of his friends still die; what’s more, the original play was published before Kramer’s own HIV diagnosis. Don’t get me wrong—I have the utmost respect for Kramer and his generation. But that version of the story has been told time and again. And the reality on the ground is different now. Thousands of HIV-positive people (at least in wealthy nations) are living normal lifespans. We’re having long-term relationships and getting married, and some of us are even finding ways to have kids. Not only is it time for a dramedy about an HIV-positive protagonist—in my humble opinion, it’s also time for that story to earn a wide audience.
Christian Daniel Kiley is the writer and director of Unsure/Positive: A Series About Life With HIV. He lives in Boston with his fiancé Michael and is a candidate for an MFA in media art at Emerson College. Visit unsurepositiveseries.com to watch the opening scene and get updates on the show’s development.
Search: HIV, stigma, Unsure/Positive, self, TV series, Kickstarter, dramedy, Christian Daniel Kiley
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