by MK Scott
I first noticed Karl Schmid in 2018 on the post-Oscars coverage, a native Aussie who was an entertainment reporter for KABC-TV in Los Angeles. He made headlines last year by coming out as HIV positive, and now, at 39, he is editorial director of the newly launched +Life (“plus-life”) website.
+Life’s mission is to end the stigma associated with being HIV positive. Its original content features interviews with newsmakers, first-person accounts of living positively, and a mix of lifestyle, entertainment, and news coverage—in short, +Life shares information for and lends inspiration to people living with HIV and the people who support them. For example, Karl recently interviewed Dr. Anthony Fauci, perhaps the world’s preeminent HIV/AIDS physician and researcher, and they discussed how “undetectable equals untransmittable” (U=U).
Recent news—from Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness disclosing his status to Princes William and Harry praising Welsh rugby legend Gareth Thomas for sharing that he is living with HIV, to Billy Porter winning the Emmy for portraying a HIV-positive man—only underscores that HIV awareness, education, and acceptance are mainstream, global issues.
I met Karl in late 2018 in Palm Springs at the gay journalists’ conference and jumped at the chance when offered this interview.
MK Scott: Greetings, Karl. People in Seattle know you from the Oscar party coverage. But most importantly, they know you because you came out last year as being HIV positive.
Karl Schmid: Yes, I did.
MKS: So how long did you keep that secret?
KS: Well, I kept the secret as far as my professional life [was concerned]. At that point it was coming up on almost 11 years. Yesterday I celebrated my 12th anniversary since my diagnosis.
KS: Thank you. It’s funny, people go, “Why do you celebrate?” [or] “Really? You want to celebrate that?” I’m like, why not? It’s funny, you know, HIV—and I’m not the only who says this—in a way it kind of saved me. Not to say that I was out there living some crazy, wild life, but when you have a diagnosis in your life that really makes you [go], “hang on a second,” [you] sit up and take notice. I think it puts a lot of other things in perspective.
The time of announcing it…was not planned in any way whatsoever. I sort of just let my fingers do the talking one night on social media and it all came out. It’s one of the best things I did.
… Because certainly on that day back in 2007, if I thought that I would be having a conversation with you talking about +Life, I would’ve said, “Absolutely no way, what the hell are you talking about?” [But] here I am 12 years later…
MKS: What was your reaction when you got the news [that you were positive]?
KS: I think it was before—it sort of—I can’t explain it… immediately I visualized a red countdown box ticking backwards over my head. I don’t know why or where that came from, but they told me those words in [the clinic] in London, and all of a sudden, I kind of saw this red digital countdown box just counting backwards. It was almost like at timer had been put on my life.
But, you know, I had to go back to work, I had to walk back…into my office. I had to keep it together. I kind of went into a survival mode. I thought, OK, well, that’s the news, that’s it. So what do we do now?
And that really kind of has been my mantra ever since with it. There was no turning back. So there really wasn’t much of a point of me sitting in a corner and crying and saying, “why me, why me, this isn’t fair.” Because, you know, I made certain decisions and I did certain things that put me in a position in which I got the HIV virus. And education and sort of sauntering on was key.
MKS: Exactly. I remember as far back as 1990, when I got my first HIV test. You went to a community clinic and got an anonymous number. And then they took blood and you had to wait a grueling two weeks.
KS: Yeah, thankfully I only had a 15-minute sit. And you know, I’ve been to that clinic plenty of times over the years of living in London. It was convenient to where I was as a sexually active young guy in his twenties—and responsible: I went and got regular HIV and STI testing every six months or so. So it wasn’t a clinic that was unfamiliar to me, it wasn’t a procedure that was unfamiliar to me, but it was a result that I wasn’t used to.
MKS: Since coming out last year as positive, what has been the response been like?
KS: Well, in life, it’s been overwhelmingly fantastic. For me, personally, my response has been sort of two parts: a great relief, but it’s also ignited a fire within me to fight HIV’s stigma. Because I didn’t realize the level of internalized stigma I had until I really started speaking [publicly] about HIV.
You know, I always kind of joked—because I am a sort of a sarcastic, cheeky person—“Oh, look, you don’t want to be with me, I’m damaged goods.” But what I didn’t realize was actually there was a huge part of me that in my subconscious actually believed it.
And certainly over those 11 years, quite often the worst stigma was from within the LGBT—in particular, the gay male—community, which always surprises me, and still to this day upsets me greatly. Though our community went through so much, it seems that those lessons and those moments are lost on a whole generation who could [still] lose friends and family… The level and stigma and misinformation and misunderstanding from that sector of the community astounds me. I will say this: Generation Z, the newest wave of young people coming through, are so much more informed and so much more up to speed on it. But the millennial generation, we got a lot of work to do.
So [my] reaction was kind of relief, but also wow, I have this internalized stigma. But the outward reaction has been one of great acceptance and great support. And it’s that level of support and thanks that I get to this day—from complete strangers, via direct message on Instagram or Twitter or Facebook—that led me and my partners to come up with +Life.
Because, honest, there’s not a day that goes by where I don’t get messages from people who see something that I post on Instagram or Facebook and say thank you… “I’ve been HIV positive, but I’m in the closet, where I live the stigma is real.” I get messages from people in Pakistan, Iran, South America, Vietnam, all over the world. Gays, straight, lesbian, bi, trans—it doesn’t matter their color, their sexual identity, their gender identity, you name it, I’ve heard from them. And they just say thank you.
And I’m like, for what? I posted a picture of me on a beach drinking out of a coconut. But they say, ”You’re out there and you don’t hide your HIV and you’re showing the world that an HIV diagnosis is no different than any other manageable chronic illness. So thank you.” And because of that sort of reaction and support, [we came] up with +Life and created this new digital platform where people could see and hear and identify with themselves, and see that HIV is just three letters and a little positive symbol, no more defining of somebody than diabetes or cancer is.
It’s funny to me that if I told someone I had cancer, the reaction would be to hug me and say, “Are you OK?” If I would tell someone I have diabetes, the reaction would be, “Oh my god, that sucks.” There’s compassion. But you tell somebody that you’re HIV positive and they take two steps back, look at you like you’re a bit dirty, and then often say, “So, how did you get it?” And we need to change that.
We need to change that because the science is there. It’s clear: I cannot transmit the virus if I’m undetectable. As Dr. Anthony Fauci has said to me numerous times, we have the tools to end the epidemic. The tools are there. But we have stigma, and that stigma leads to ridiculous rules and regulations and government bodies and all this crap.
MKS: Do you think that, with the fact that HIV is becoming more undetectable and that people are living longer, the crisis is finally over?
KS: I don’t think the AIDS crisis is over. I really don’t. HIV still matters. We still need funding. We need the funding—not just to find a cure but also looking at treatment as prevention (PrEP). … I’m glad to see that things are finally starting to move in this country as far as making these medicines both affordable and accessible.
So, no, the conversation is far from over. And it still needs to be at the head of the table, because that’s the danger: people think, “Oh, well, now there are these pills, people are living longer.”
But coming back to the stigma again: there’s still such a stigma and such misinformation out there in the public about what it means to be HIV positive, people are not getting tested. They’re not going on PrEP. They feel that “if I take PrEP, I’m going to be slut-shamed.” … Because there are still a lot of people in the medical industry who have prejudice, homophobia, and transphobia, and everything else. So we got a lot of work to do [in terms of] talking about HIV and AIDS.
I don’t think anybody should live with shame and regret for anything, you know? If you’re a sexually active adult and you’re making decisions… Look, we all make decisions we sometimes regret, but nobody should made to feel less than because of the bloody HIV virus in this day. I mean, c’mon, enough already.
MKS: What do you think about Jonathan Van Ness and Gareth Thomas coming out as positive.
KS: Well, I think it’s great. Whenever somebody from the public eye steps up and talks about it, as far as I’m concerned, so long as we’re talking about HIV, we’re walking in the right direction. Because the more people hear those three letters and symbols, the more they see people that may look and sound like them—or don’t look and sound like them—that’s only a good thing, because it takes the sting out of it. There was a time when people used to say “the C-word” instead of cancer. Now, look at it.
You know, Jonathan is fantastic. What he’s managed to achieve in the past week, with Elizabeth Warren, and Nancy Pelosi and eyeballs that he has put on it… He sat there on Jimmy Kimmel and many other shows and talked about “undetectable equals untransmittable.” U=U is the most simple, cheapest public health announcement ever.
But it is not taking hold in this country. +Life working so hard to get that messaging out. And what we need is more people to step up and talk about it. It’s all good and well to have Jonathan Van Ness and me and the Gareth in the UK, but we are seen as white men of privilege, and we know, especially in this country, that HIV rates are on the climb in black, brown, and trans communities.
MKS: That’s correct.
KS: And, unfortunately, those communities don’t really want to hear what I or Jonathan Van Ness or Gareth have to say. So it doesn’t resonate.
And, again, that’s why we created +Life, where we really are bringing together a team of fantastic talented, exciting, bright sparks of life who are all HIV positive, from every shade of the rainbow and every gender identifies preference…to just really represent and to reach those people. And also heterosexual people.
You know, I got a lot of flak last year when I went on the third hour of the Today Show with Megyn Kelly. The number of people who came at me, going, “Oh my god, why would you go to that Trump-loving, white da-da-da-da-da?” And I said, “Aha, that’s exactly why I’m going on her show. Because they’re the people who need to hear about U=U. They’re the people who have this misinformation through no fault of their own.”
You know, we haven’t had a proper, effective public health campaign in this country, or many other countries, that speak to what HIV is today. We did a great job of scaring the shit out of people in the ’80s and early ’90s…
MKS: Yes, I agree with that.
KS: We need Coca-Cola or Pepsi or McDonald’s marketing team to create a campaign, because, you know what? Whether you drink Coca-Cola or not, you know about it. Whether you eat McDonald’s or not, you know about it. And those campaigns speak to everybody.
HIV campaigns are stuck in their clinical world of, “Well, let’s do a billboard, right? We’ll get a black guy and his white boyfriend. They’ll both be holding hands, and we’ll have an Asian female doctor, and she’ll have a stethoscope around her neck, and then we’ll have a trans lab assistant there in scrubs, so we’ve ticked every box, and we’ll say U=U, undetected…”—who the fuck cares?! Nobody.
So, again, at +Life, what we hope to be doing—you know, we’ve only been up for a week—but what we really hope to do is bring it out to the mainstream, show people—everyday people, from all walks of life—what HIV looks like in 2019 and to educate and to talk to people about it so that we break down that stigma.
MKS: That’s fabulous. Those campaigns in the ’90s basically scared everybody. It’s like trying to scare everybody into abstinence, you know.
KS: Yeah, and by the way, we needed to do something, but we did it so effectively, and we’ve had no updated communication since until, I mean…I hate to kind of toot my own horn…until I came out and talked about it until Jonathan Van Ness is now talking about it. Gareth is talking about it. God bless Charlie Sheen, you know—if you’re a Charlie Sheen fan, great, a lot of people may not be—but in some ways that does damage to the cause: if you don’t like Charlie Sheen, then you’re going to go, “Well, he fucking deserved it,” see what I mean?
As I said, I really hope that people come to +Life and engage with us and interact with us and that we can grow this into something as mainstream as the Huffington Post.
MKS: How is it different from some other sites, such as My Fabulous Disease or HIV Plus?
KS: Right. Well, hey, listen: I love all of these other platforms. What I’m trying to do is talk about it in the sense that anybody and everybody can understand and relate to. You know, quite often, it’s easy to get entangled with the science and the academics of it all. For myself, you know, I go to my doctor, and he starts rattling off all these letters and numbers, and I don’t know what he’s talking about. I don’t care—I just want to know if am I healthy and undetectable.
So what we’re trying to do is really break it down and put it in everyday language, and again, address and talk to everybody. You know, a lot of places are LGBTQI specific, or female-specific. We’re about embracing and chatting with everybody.
MKS: OK. Well, I got something a little bit different for you, something a little bit light. With you being a celebrity journalist, which celeb is on your wish list to interview?
KS: Dolly Parton.
MKS: I have! I was a phone conference—there were maybe ten gay journalists that were invited on a press call with Dolly three, four years ago.
KS: Well, I’m jealous. She’s the one that comes to mind. I just think that the career that she’s had, the multi-levels of talents that that woman has, and the compassion that she has… and she’s a fantastic representation of somebody who is “what you see is what you get.” I mean that’s Dolly Parton, and that’s why we love her.
MKS: I’ve been a fan of yours ever since two years ago, when I first saw you on the red carpet at the Oscars. And then having the chance to meet you in person was just very exciting.
KS: Well, thanks for being so nice. And thanks for taking the time, and for giving us at +Life a shout-out. We really want to build this. We want to make this work. It’s taken over 12 months of fighting and flogging to get it here, but we’re there and we’re proud, and we just want to get people eyeballing it and being a part of the conversation.
Be sure to check out +Life by going to pluslifemedia.com.