Jonathan Van Ness gets candid about being HIV-positive for World AIDS Day

Beth Greenfield
·Senior Editor
·6 min read
Jonathan Van Ness, on the cover of the latest issue of 'Self,' speaks out about everything from being HIV-positive to living in Austin in a wide-ranging interview. (Photo: Self/Instagram)
Jonathan Van Ness, on the cover of the latest issue of 'Self,' speaks out about everything from being HIV-positive to living in Austin in a wide-ranging interview. (Photo: Self/Instagram)

Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day, which has prompted many celebrities and influencers to speak out on social media about the ongoing epidemic — including the 38 million people living with HIV/AIDS globally, the 15,000 Americans who still die of HIV-related causes each year and the pressing need to have accessible treatment for all.

Among them was Jonathan Van Ness, of Queer Eye fame, who tweeted about his own HIV-positive status (meaning he carries the virus that causes AIDS) and the need for a “comprehensive federal program to provide testing, treatment & medication for all people living with HIV/AIDS.”

Van Ness also tweeted about being on the cover of Self magazine, where he shows off his luscious, wavy trimmed locks, and in which a lengthy feature story gets him talking about his public HIV-positive disclosure in 2019, his commitment to psychotherapy, dealing with the pandemic, being gender-nonbinary (Van Ness uses he/she/they pronouns), working on personal boundaries, dating, politics, wanting to get his hands in people’s hair, moving to Austin and more.

When the interviewer pointed out the powerful, positive influence that Van Ness had on so many when he disclosed his HIV status in a New York Times article, he admitted to having a hard time taking that in. “It makes me tear up so hard thinking about it,” said Van Ness, relating it to the sexual abuse he experienced as a child. “Being a survivor of abuse, we have this ability to disassociate. I think I really, truly disassociated from feeling positive feedback or negative feedback. I had such a guard up…. I just felt like this is the most scary, vulnerable thing I could ever, ever do.”

That was especially true, noted the interviewer, considering the Queer Eye star was at such a highpoint in his career — not only a reality-TV celeb, but a memoir and picture-book author, stand-up comedian, podcast host and creator of the Emmy-nominated variety show Gay of Thrones.

“There’s a younger part in me that was scared that if I did come out with my status and talk about it, that that was going to be the only facet of me that people were going to want to talk about or think about or acknowledge,” he said, recalling that the decision to come out publicly with HIV struck him as “really permanent,” but that he’s since decided, “if that’s the only facet that people are going to see me for, that’s on them, that’s not on me.”

He also addressed disparities when it comes to health services for those living with HIV, acknowledging his privilege when it comes to having a private doctor and private health insurance. “There are not enough resources in the HIV social safety net anywhere. And when it comes to Black people, Black women, people of color, the assault on Planned Parenthood — there isn’t enough access anywhere,” Van Ness said. “And the access and the care that we do have, you constantly have to fight for it. If you turn your back for even one second, those budgets are…slashed and the access isn’t there. And the Trump administration has been really…difficult; [it has] just made everything much more difficult for folks to get access.”

He added that he’s thought a lot about how he would’ve fared if the pandemic had hit years ago, when he was working out of a Los Angeles salon and had not yet achieved fame. “One thing I struggle with a lot is thinking about what I would have done in this pandemic if this entire situation happened, like, four years ago,” he said. “If I didn’t have a platform and I didn’t have all these opportunities — what would I have been doing if I still had my studio salon space?”

The pandemic interrupted Queer Eye’s filming, which was taking place in Austin — where Van Ness decided to quarantine and, eventually, settle. “I didn’t expect to fall in love with Austin as much when we came here for shooting,” he said. “And then we came, and everything shut down. I had my four cats and was on this lake at an Airbnb, and I was like, Do I love Austin? Is this a liberal bastion in Texas? And it kind of is. I started exploring and was like, Oh, my God, I want to move here. Then I found a house, and I loved it.”

He further added, bringing in the type of comedic relief he’s known for, “I am that person in goggles and a mask and a face shield at Whole Foods, but I don’t care,” he said regarding his caution about the pandemic. “I think it’s chic. I love it. Let me give you full hazmat realness out here. I don’t mind if it keeps me more safe.”

Van Ness was coy when asked about his dating life, saying, “Private,” but later adding, “It’s not that I will always be private about my relationships, but I just think that I need more time to kind of learn to date and be in a relationship as this public figure. Dating’s hard enough not as a public figure, and then when you add this into it, it’s like, Well… It is a whole pile of complicated.”

He also addressed how hard he’s had to work on maintaining personal boundaries, particularly when asked to publicly share painful parts of his past. “The point is the healing,” Van Ness said. “I don’t want to talk about the trauma. I want to talk about the healing. As a survivor of abuse, I’m not willing to retraumatize myself for someone’s story.”

Seeing a trusted therapist twice a week for eight years, he says, has helped with that. “Once you find that therapist you can be open and honest with,” he advised, “hold on with both hands.”

Finally, he told Self about his very public platform, “I just want to do a good job. I want to do right by baby JVN. And so I put a lot of pressure on myself to try to say the right thing, be authentic, and try to use what I have beneficially for other people.”

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