Living with HIV and Being Who You Want to Be
Designer Viktor Luna talks about HIV and changing attitudes
Fashion designer Viktor Luna was a contestant on Project Runway and Project Runway: All Stars in 2013 when he disclosed that he was HIV positive. Since then, he has worked to raise awareness of HIV, especially among young people and members of Latino communities. We interviewed him in advance of National Latinx AIDS Awareness Day on October 15.
amfAR: How did you manage to come to terms with being HIV positive?
Viktor Luna: It was definitely a process. I guess I could call it grieving—accepting the reality of living with HIV. While I was filming Project Runway I was very vulnerable. A girl who was my partner’s friend at that time had tried to disclose my status because she was being vengeful and mean. So that scared me and made me think, “You know what, I’d rather just say it and be comfortable with it.” Also because I’m a public figure, I felt it would benefit other people to know there are people living with HIV that are okay and living comfortably and following their dreams and careers. I think my whole thought process, after grieving, was to be comfortable with myself and let people know that it’s okay to be who you want to be while living with HIV.
amfAR’s Epic Voices: Viktor Luna
amfAR: You have talked about the taboo in the Latino community regarding discussions of sex, and how this can lead to problems for young people especially. What do you think can be done to change this?
Luna: Communication could prevent a lot of issues and problems. I feel like in the Latino community, it’s definitely taboo to talk about sex. When I was growing up people would never talk about STDs or anything like that. I think nowadays parents are a little bit more open-minded and progressive. Talking about sex openly will help prevent kids from becoming infected. I emphasize kids because they’re more susceptible. If they don’t have knowledge, they will explore and do whatever they need to experience life to the fullest. But if they know the consequences, they might have more prevention tools for HIV in the future.
amfAR: Do you think young people would ever feel comfortable broaching the subject of sex to their parents if the parents don’t want to talk about it?
Luna: I think it’s still difficult. One issue is that it’s hard to come out as a gay person. And I say gay because probably the majority of people living with HIV are gay. So I can imagine that even talking about prevention, parents might say, “Well, you don't have to worry about that because that’s not going to happen to you if you protect yourself.” So often people don’t see it coming. We think we’re invincible, we think we’re healthy, so when it happens to us, we think, “Oh, wow, I can’t believe this.” That was my reaction.
So communication is everybody’s job. But I think the parents have the upper hand since they have more maturity and experience. They could bring up the subject to their children and let them initiate the conversation. “Hey, you know, you’re having sex. Make sure you protect yourself.” And not only against HIV but also other STDs.
At Kiehl’s 9th Annual LifeRide for amfAR (left to right): performer Ongina, Kiehl’s Brand Ambassador Chris Salgardo, Viktor Luna
amfAR: Are there other reasons why you think Latinos in this country account for about one-quarter of new HIV infections, despite making up only 18% of the population?
Luna: A lot of Latino communities are low-income and don’t get the healthcare that they need. Also schools could do a better job of providing information. I had health education in school but it was mainly about the risk of pregnancy. They did talk about STDs briefly but it was a very minor focus.
amfAR: Since young Hispanic/Latino gay and bisexual men are disproportionately affected by HIV, do you have any particular advice for them or their families?
Luna: I think pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is a perfect alternative for someone who is promiscuous or otherwise at risk, if you have any kind of insurance. If you’re the parent, you can help your child get PrEP. And those who are over 18 can get it for themselves.
amfAR: What impact would finding a cure for HIV have on Latino communities?
Luna: Finding the cure would be the end of an era. It would put people at ease a bit not to have to take medication every day in order to take care of themselves and protect others. It would definitely mean a little bit of freedom but a lot more responsibility, because people would probably be more open to other encounters. We still have to keep in mind that it’s not just HIV that we have to worry about but other STDs as well.
Talking about sex openly will help prevent kids from becoming infected.amfAR: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Luna: I’m concerned about how a lot of youth think about HIV these days. I’ve encountered one, in particular, whose attitude was: “If I contract HIV it’s not a death sentence. There’s medication. If I do get it, I’ll probably get so much help, just as Viktor is getting, either from the government or from insurance.”
And I think that mentality is not healthy. I live comfortably with my medication, and I’m able to function and continue my dream, but I still need dedication and discipline in order to maintain my lifestyle. Every day I have to think about taking my pills and refilling them. So there is personal responsibility. It’s not just getting help from the government, or getting help from an organization that’s going to help you with your insurance.
When that particular young person shared his lack of concern about HIV, I was taken aback. I thought I should address this attitude and make sure that the youth know that it’s not okay to think like that. HIV is serious and we have to take it seriously.
Viktor Luna is one of amfAR’s Epic Voices featured on the Countdown to a Cure website.