INTERVIEW: Greg Louganis on HIV/AIDS Stigma and Reliving Early Struggles

Helga Esteb /

Helga Esteb /

It was a very interesting time to chat with Olympic superstar Greg Louganis: I spoke with him shortly after the Charlie Sheen interview that caused our collective culture to have a broader discussion about HIV, about stigma, and about a lack of practical knowledge on the virus. Louganis, who has become a visible and vocal advocate for HIV/AIDS education, will be in Philadelphia on December 3 for Philadelphia FIGHT’s annual gala, where he will present a talk on a variety of health-related matters. The diving star opened up about society’s view on HIV and his own perceptions of gay youth living in the 21st Century.

You’ll be in town for the Philadelphia FIGHT gala. What are some of the things that you’ll be speaking about? I’ll share a bit of my history and part of my story, and how far we’ve come with HIV treatment and care, as well as stigma. Fighting stigma is a huge issue, and the only way is through education, education, education. We have to educate those that we love. It’s interesting: A good example of that is that many people assume my husband is HIV positive, but he’s not. We get tested regularly and we take care of each other.

Last week was certainly been an interesting one for public awareness on HIV after the Charlie Sheen interview. I’m curious to hear from you about how that interview went and what impact it might have, if any. It shows that stigma is still there, but it is also a different day and age then when I was diagnosed back in 88. It’s no longer a death sentence. You know, it is devastating. We’re so uptight about talking about sex in this country when it is a natural thing. When I go and talk to 14, 15, 16 year olds, it’s a free-for-all. I usually do a Q&A and they ask questions about sex, drugs, depression, all of these things that are part of our society. We need to have open and honest conversations about things that are around us.

There are still so many misconception about HIV?AIDS in the public eyes. What are some of the biggest in your opinion? It is a viral thing, not a moral thing. It doesn’t discriminate. If you go to Africa, it is amongst the straight population. It’s a virus. It’s simple as that. We’ve come so far so far as treatment goes, and the meds are much more tolerable than they were before. Also, we have PREP now, but it has got to be taken as prescribed. It has to be in your system. There’s education and conversation that needs to happen about that, about depression, about addiction. These are a lot of things that have come forward. Charlie [Sheen’s] doctor was more concerned with his drug and alcohol use, and I’ve dealt with those things. Even with my HIV treatment, I use both Western and Eastern medicine. I’ve been sober for nine years. There’s choices that you can make that will impact your quality of life.

You were diagnosed with HIV in the 80’s, when it was still something of a four-letter word. There was a lot of fear. What has changed and what remains the same for those who are diagnosed today? I was diagnosed in 88 prior to the Olympics. I couldn’t divulge my status because I wouldn’t have been able to compete. There was so much fear and ignorance. We were still learning. I wrote my book and did those Barbara Walters and Oprah interviews, and that was the beginning of me talking honestly and openly about my sexual identity and HIV status. I’m now legally married in the state of California. Never in my lifetime did I ever think that would be a possibility. When my mother was alive, it was her greatest fear: “You’ll be a second-class citizen! You’ll never get married. You’ll die alone.” When Johnny and I got married, we looked at each other and thought that our parents were smiling down on us.

You mentioned the struggles, and there’s a real divide right now between some older generations of gays and younger generations. Do you feel that? Absolutely. We lived the horrors of those days. We had friends dying left and right and we were going to memorials weekly. It was a super hard time for everyone. The kids today didn’t live through that. They didn’t experience that. To get a sense of it, you had to experience that. It brings back a lot of emotions: the social climate at that time, the fear and ignorance, and the lack of action. When I was on my book tour back in 95, Fred Phelps would follow me around with a “Die AIDS Faggot” sign, but I loved it because it was a controversy and my appearances were standing room only! Once, at a theater, the staff took me around the back entrance. When I asked why, they said, “We don’t want you to see what’s happening across the street.” There were protestors, and I replied, “No, I want to see it!” Someone in the audience that night asked, “What do you think of the ignorance outside of this door?” I remember telling them that I wish I could give [the protestors] a teddy bear because they needed a hug.

Interested in seeing Greg Louganis while he’s in town? The Philadelphia FIGHT gala is on Thursday, December 3. For tickets and more information, visit their webpage.