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Many folks with HIV stay silent about their status. The reaction to Charlie Sheen's story shows why.

Many people say the hardest part of living with HIV is the stigma. Here's some easy ways to treat HIV-positive people with compassion.

This morning, actor Charlie Sheen made a huge announcement: He's HIV-positive.

Photo by MIchael Buckner/Getty Images.


The move comes after the Internet exploded yesterday with speculation about the actor's status after the National Enquirer promised a "bombshell world exclusive" about the actor's private life.

All totally valid criticisms of Sheen aside, no one deserves to have their personal information shared without their permission. Sheen probably wouldn't even have shared his status without the threat of extortion hanging over his head, because there is still so much stigma and so many misconceptions surrounding an HIV diagnosis. But now that he's come forward, it's significant that he was able to share his story in his words before anyone else could.

Individuals with HIV should be able to live without shame and with the freedom to be open about their lived experiences.

Reactions to Sheen's announcement show we still have a long way to go to overcome stigma about the virus.

Sheen shares that he was diagnosed about four years ago. Why did he keep it secret for so long? Uh, the cover of this magazine might give a hint.

Photo via National Enquirer.

Treating someone's HIV status — a private medical condition that is likely irrelevant to everyone who'll read it — as a sensationalist gossip topic isn't just gross, it's wrong. Not to mention: HIV and AIDS aren't interchangeable diseases — to proclaim, on the cover of a magazine no less, that Charlie Sheen not wanting to disclose his HIV diagnosis is an "AIDS COVER-UP" wildly misrepresents what an HIV diagnosis means in 2015. Media reactions like this are why he and millions of other Americans are hesitant to disclose their HIV status.

Misconceptions and stigma about HIV play a large factor in why many with the diagnosis stay silent, often forever.

“We're finding, despite the fact that we've been living with this disease for 30 years, that the greatest challenge we're facing is stigma," David Furnish, chairman of the Elton John AIDS Foundation, said in an interview with The Advocate. "[That's] the biggest hurdle we have to overcome."

Stigma against HIV-positive people is a large reason why discrimination is so rampant. Loss of housing, employment, and close relationships is common for people with HIV or AIDS in ways that many folks with other life-threatening conditions don't face.


Retired NBA player Magic Johnson publicly disclosed his HIV-positive status in 1991. Since then, he's become an outspoken advocate for safer sex and HIV/AIDS prevention. Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images.

Here's what you need to know about HIV:

Stigma is a tricky thing that many people don't realize influences how they treat someone — because it can seem so normal. Remembering these facts will help you destigmatize HIV and AIDS when you find yourself in conversations about it in the real world.

1. HIV and AIDS are not interchangeable.

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus, which is a tiny organism in the body.

AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) refers to the condition one can get after HIV completely compromises their immune system.

An individual can have HIV for many years and never get AIDS. Only a doctor can make the call whether someone has AIDS. Thanks to progress in medical care, people in the U.S. who take antiviral treatments often never get AIDS.

2. The risks of contracting HIV through everyday contact like handholding or sharing a swimming pool is minimal.

HIV is not spread through the air, casual touch, tears, sweat, or saliva. So it's OK to use the same bathroom, eating utensils, and water fountain. In the U.S., the most common way people are infected is through penetrative sex, which is why it's important to use condoms.

But it's not just through sexual activity. There are reasons to be extra cautious if, say, you have a cut on your hand and you help your friend with HIV bandage a cut on her hand. HIV is transmitted through certain body fluids, like blood, coming into contact with the bloodstream, damaged tissue, or a mucous membrane like the mouth.

3. HIV is not a punishment.

No one deserves to get HIV. It is not a condemnation from God or some sort of punishment for certain acts that others may not approve of. When you read your magazines in the checkout aisle of the grocery store, don't buy into all the correlations between Charlie Sheen's history of being a "womanizer" or his relationships with sex workers meant to imply that his HIV infection is a punishment for that. It only takes one bad needle, one broken condom, or one partner to transmit the disease.

If you cite Sheen's wild past and say he got what he deserved, that assumption reflects on all people who have HIV, no matter how careful they were in their lives. It reinforces the myth that HIV-positive people are being punished for bad decisions, a stigma that they face every day.

4. People of all genders and sexual orientations can get HIV.

For a long time, HIV was seen as something only gay and bisexual men should worry about. But according to the CDC, 23% of people with HIV are women. Of women who were newly infected, 84% were from heterosexual contact.

While most folks get HIV from sexual contact, remember that there are other ways people get infected, like being born with it or through a blood transfusion. In general, it's just best not to assume how they got HIV. It's irrelevant at this point anyway, right?

5. You can't tell whether someone is HIV-positive by how they look.

Just because someone doesn't "look sick" doesn't mean they're HIV-negative. Many HIV-positive people can be symptom-free for years before discovering they are infected. That's why it's so important to get tested regularly. You'll be able to get early medical intervention and prevent inadvertently infecting someone.

Actor Danny Pintauro, best known for his role as Jonathan Bower on the TV show "Who's the Boss" as a child, came out as HIV-positive this year. Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images.

Here's how to handle conversations about HIV and AIDS in real life to stop stigma in its tracks:

Be mindful of your language when talking about HIV. A lot of common terms can reinforce stigma. For example, the term "clean" when referring to negative HIV status implies that someone who is HIV-positive is dirty.

Treat a person respectfully when they disclose their status. Be compassionate in your response and make sure to respect their privacy. Their disclosure is not consent to being an open book about sexual history, medical treatment, or how they contracted the virus. And just because they disclose their status to you doesn't mean they're giving you permission to reveal it to everyone else, too.

Do not speculate on or disclose someone's HIV status without permission. Basically, don't do what the Enquirer did with Charlie Sheen.

Get tested. Knowledge is power. Visit this link to find a place near you. A lot of places offer free testing, which can be completed in a few minutes!



Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis tested positive for HIV in 1988. He is an advocate for LGBT and people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for The Point Foundation.

Educating yourself about HIV just doesn't make you more knowledgeable, it makes you a real force in reducing HIV stigma.

HIV stigma is very real — and it has dangerous consequences. It keeps people from getting treatment and but also getting the care and support from others that they (all of us?) need. Many studies have found there are significant public health risks because of stigma.

We're probably never going to persuade everyone to treat Charlie Sheen's diagnosis with respect and dignity or prevent them from making stupid TIGER BLOOD jokes. But the lessons we learn from how we talk about Sheen's announcement have real-world repercussions on non-famous people living with HIV stigma every day.

If we work hard to reveal the reality — that living with HIV isn't a death sentence, that there's nothing to fear from HIV-positive individuals — we can create a world where folks can divulge their status on their own terms. It'll be a better, safer world for everyone.

Images courtesy of Letters of Love
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When Grace Berbig was 7 years old, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Being so young, Grace didn’t know what cancer was or why her mother was suddenly living in the hospital. But she did know this: that while her mom was in the hospital, she would always be assured that her family was thinking of her, supporting her and loving her every step of her journey.

Nearly every day, Grace and her two younger sisters would hand-make cards and fill them with drawings and messages of love, which their mother would hang all over the walls of her hospital room. These cherished letters brought immeasurable peace and joy to their mom during her sickness. Sadly, when Grace was just 10 years old, her mother lost her battle with cancer.“

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Losing my mom put the world in a completely different perspective for me,” Grace says. “I realized that you never know when someone could leave you, so you have to love the people you love with your whole heart, every day.”

Grace’s father was instrumental in helping in the healing process of his daughters. “I distinctly remember my dad constantly reminding my two little sisters, Bella and Sophie, and I that happiness is a choice, and it was now our job to turn this heartbreaking event in our life into something positive.”

When she got to high school, Grace became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and a handful of other organizations. But she never felt like she was doing enough.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for people to help beyond donating money, and one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their financial status.”

In October 2018, Grace started Letters of Love, a club at her high school in Long Lake, Minnesota, to emotionally support children battling cancer and other serious illnesses through letter-writing and craft-making.


Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Much to her surprise, more than 100 students showed up for the first club meeting. From then on, Letters of Love grew so fast that during her senior year in high school, Grace had to start a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of card-making materials.

Speaking about her nonprofit today, Grace says, “I can’t find enough words to explain how blessed I feel to have this organization. Beyond the amount of kids and families we are able to support, it allows me to feel so much closer and more connected to my mom.”

Since its inception, Letters of Love has grown to more than 25 clubs with more than 1,000 members providing emotional support to more than 60,000 patients in children’s hospitals around the world. And in the process it has become a full-time job for Grace.

“I do everything from training volunteers and club ambassadors, paying bills, designing merchandise, preparing financial predictions and overviews, applying for grants, to going through each and every card ensuring they are appropriate to send out to hospitals.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

In addition to running Letters of Love, Grace and her small team must also contend with the emotions inherent in their line of work.

“There have been many, many tears cried,” she says. “Working to support children who are battling cancer and other serious and sometimes chronic illnesses can absolutely be extremely difficult mentally. I feel so blessed to be an organization that focuses solely on bringing joy to these children, though. We do everything we can to simply put a smile on their face, and ensure they know that they are so loved, so strong, and so supported by people all around the world.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Letters of Love has been particularly instrumental in offering emotional support to children who have been unable to see friends and family due to COVID-19. A video campaign in the summer of 2021 even saw members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild offer short videos of hope and encouragement to affected children.

Grace is currently taking a gap year before she starts college so she can focus on growing Letters of Love as well as to work on various related projects, including the publication of a children’s book.

“The goal of the book is to teach children the immense impact that small acts of kindness can have, how to treat their peers who may be diagnosed with disabilities or illness, and how they are never too young to change the world,” she says.

Since she was 10, Grace has kept memories of her mother close to her, as a source of love and inspiration in her life and in the work she does with Letters of Love.

Image courtesy of Grace Berbig

“When I lost my mom, I felt like a section of my heart went with her, so ever since, I have been filling that piece with love and compassion towards others. Her smile and joy were infectious, and I try to mirror that in myself and touch people’s hearts as she did.”

For more information visit Letters of Love.

Please donate to Grace’s GoFundMe and help Letters of Love to expand, publish a children’s book and continue to reach more children in hospitals around the world.

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Images courtesy of AFutureSuperhero and Friends and Balance Dance Project
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The day was scorching hot, but the weather wasn’t going to stop a Star Wars Stormtrooper from handing out school supplies to a long line of eager children. “You guys don’t have anything illegal back there - any droids or anything?” the Stormtrooper asks, making sure he was safe from enemies before handing over a colorful backpack to a smiling boy.

The man inside the costume is Yuri Williams, founder of AFutureSuperhero And Friends, a Los Angeles nonprofit that uplifts and inspires marginalized people with small acts of kindness.

Yuri’s organization is one of four inaugural grant winners from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, a joint initiative between Upworthy and GoFundMe that celebrates kindness and everyday actions inspired by the best of humanity. This year, the Upworthy Kindness Fund is giving $100,000 to grassroots changemakers across the world.

To apply, campaign organizers simply tell Upworthy how their kindness project is making a difference. Between now and the end of 2021, each accepted individual or organization will receive $500 towards an existing GoFundMe and a shout-out on Upworthy.

Meet the first four winners:

1: Balance Dance Project: This studio aims to bring accessible dance to all in the Sacramento, CA area. Lead fundraiser Miranda Macias says many dancers spend hours a day at Balance practicing contemporary, lyrical, hip-hop, and ballet. Balance started a GoFundMe to raise money to cover tuition for dancers from low-income communities, buy dance team uniforms, and update its facility. The $500 contribution from the Kindness Fund nudged Balance closer to its $5,000 goal.

2: Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team: In Los Angeles, middle school teacher James Pike is introducing his students to the field of robotics via a Lego-building team dedicated to solving real-world problems.

James started a GoFundMe to crowdfund supplies for his students’ team ahead of the First Lego League, a school-against-school matchup that includes robotics competitions. The team, James explained, needed help to cover half the cost of the pricey $4,000 robotics kit. Thanks to help from the Upworthy Kindness Fund and the generosity of the Citizens of the World Middle School community, the team exceeded its initial fundraising goal.

Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team video update youtu.be

3: Black Fluidity Tattoo Club: Kiara Mills and Tann Parker want to fix a big problem in the tattoo industry: there are too few Black tattoo artists. To tackle the issue, the duo founded the Black Fluidity Tattoo Club to inspire and support Black tattooers. While the Brooklyn organization is open to any Black person, Kiara and Tann specifically want to encourage dark-skinned artists to train in an affirming space among people with similar identities.

To make room for newcomers, the club recently moved into a larger studio with a third station for apprentices or guest artists. Unlike a traditional fundraiser that supports the organization exclusively, Black Fluidity Tattoo Club will distribute proceeds from GoFundMe directly to emerging Black tattoo artists who are starting their own businesses. The small grants, supported in part with a $500 contribution from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, will go towards artists’ equipment, supplies, furnishings, and other start-up costs.

4: AFutureSuperhero And Friends’ “Hope For The Holidays”: Founder Yuri Williams is fundraising for a holiday trip to spread cheer to people in need across all fifty states.

Along with collaborator Rodney Smith Jr., Yuri will be handing out gifts to children, adults, and animals dressed as a Star Wars’ Stormtrooper, Spiderman, Deadpool, and other movie or comic book characters. Starting this month, the crew will be visiting children with disabilities or serious illnesses, bringing leashes and toys to animal shelters for people taking home a new pet, and spreading blessings to unhoused people—all while in superhero costume. This will be the third time Yuri and his nonprofit have taken this journey.

AFutureSuperhero started a GoFundMe in July to cover the cost of gifts as well as travel expenses like hotels and rental cars. To help the nonprofit reach its $15,000 goal, the Upworthy Kindness Fund contributed $500 towards this good cause.

Think you qualify for the fund? Tell us how you’re bringing kindness to your community. Grants will be awarded on a rolling basis from now through the end of 2021. For questions and more information, please check out our FAQ's and the Kindness Toolkit for resources on how to start your own kindness fundraiser.

The scarf, a simple accessory that some find an essential fashion piece. Both fashionable and function with the warmth they provide, scarves can be a valuable gift for any occasion or person. Here, we've selected our best selling scarves from our store. At Upworthy Market, when you purchase a product, you directly support the artisans who craft their own products, so with every purchase, you're doing good. These scarves are not only unique, but they are hand-made by local artisans and all under $30.

1. Fair Trade Woven Dark Gray Alpaca Blend Scarf

Celinda Jaco selects a cozy blend of Andean alpaca for this handsome men's scarf. Classic in style, it features fine stripes of white and black woven through the dark grey textile. Hand-tied fringe completes a distinguished design.

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There's a reason they're so darn cute.

For parents, handling a 2-year-old's 2-year-oldness can be a challenge. You can't rationalize with them. You know they're not being little toddler terrors on purpose. You know that they're just learning and that it's a stage and a phase that won't last forever, but when you're in it? Phew.

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