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Does TV have a responsibility to show only safe gay sex?

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
updated 4:22 PM EST, Fri December 5, 2014
Characters kiss on ABC's
Characters kiss on ABC's "How to Get Away With Murder." LZ Granderson says showing safe sex can help change attitudes.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gay characters on "How to Get Away With Murder" don't appear to use condoms
  • With AIDS still present, should TV send better message? LZ Granderson asks
  • Actor Jack Falahaee says that the same standard isn't there for heterosexuals
  • Granderson: Having a gay TV character talk about safe sex could help change attitudes

Editor's note: LZ Granderson is a CNN contributor, a senior writer for ESPN and a lecturer at Northwestern University. He is a former Hechinger Institute fellow, and his commentary has been recognized by the Online News Association, the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. Follow him on Twitter @locs_n_laughs. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- One minute and eight seconds.

That's how long it was from the moment Connor Walsh walked into the copy room to when Pax Curtis dropped his pants. In between, the two chatted about illegal stock trading and working long hours, but fans of the hit ABC legal drama "How to Get Away With Murder" were not really tweeting about that.

LZ Granderson
LZ Granderson

Anytime-anywhere sex scenes are part of the show's DNA, so the over-the-top scenario in the copy room was par for the course. Particularly for young Connor, a handsome law student, who in a later episode scored in a courthouse restroom with a guy he had forgotten he had sex with months earlier.

As you can imagine, Connor flashes a great smile and a lot of flesh.

He does not, however, ever flash a condom.

And here, ladies and gentlemen, is where the conversation gets a bit uncomfortable. For as much as the network show is somewhat revolutionary for its willingness to showcase same-sex lovemaking, there is a question of how responsible that portrayal is.

This week, we observed World AIDS Day, and we are reminded that in 2014 the virus may be manageable, but it isn't cured. It still kills. There are 35 million living with HIV the world over, and 19 million don't know it. And in the United States, men who have sex with men make up 63% of all new infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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It isn't realistic to expect a character on TV to double as a public service announcement. But since only 32 of the 813 prime-time scripted series regulars are LGBT -- and not many of those 32 are seen having sex (especially like Connor) -- it seems reasonable to have high expectations for their behavior.

"There has been a conversation about it," Jack Falahee, the 25-year-old Michigan native who plays Connor, told me. "I'm not privy to all of the discussion that happens in the writers' room, but I do know early on the topic of safer sex has been brought up.

"The interesting thing is when Connor is engaging in sex there actually has been condoms in the scene, they just have never made the final shot. When Connor was with Oliver, there were condoms on the table by the bed; when he had sex with Pax, there was a condom on the set then."

If a gay character is having safer sex and no one sees it, is he really having it?

"You never see James Bond pull out a condom," Falahee said. "Maybe society has progressed to the point where we can treat heterosexual scenes and homosexual scenes the same. Or maybe there is something socially that makes us all uncomfortable about seeing a couple on TV pause to use protection no matter who that couple is."

Falahee's character has become a bit of a lightning rod for a litany of sex and society stories in the media, from The Washington Post to BuzzFeed.

On Sunday, Falahee is attending a fund-raiser for the Trevor Project, his first appearance at a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender event since the show's debut. The Trevor Project is a nonprofit organization addressing suicide prevention -- not HIV/AIDS -- but he expects as the chatter about his character grows, so will his involvement with other groups. Especially since his brother is an immunologist.

"I'm aware of the conversations that are happening today about drugs that can prevent you from contracting HIV," Falahee said. "It's a really important one to have, and not a lot of people know about them."

He is referring to pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP for short. Essentially it is treatment as prevention. And while there are some, such as AIDS activist Larry Kramer, who question the logic of taking medicine before you are sick, that is in fact something we already do.

For example, we are encouraged to take antimalarial drugs before traveling to countries where the virus is prevalent. Studies have found the antiretrovirals used to treat patients who are HIV positive reduce the chances of HIV-negative people contracting the virus by 96%. The findings are so promising that the White House has included PrEP in its strategy to reduce the overall number of new HIV infections by 25% in 2015.

All great news -- the problem is getting the word out, and that's where a popular TV character such as Connor comes in.

"This is a conversation elites, white gay bloggers, policy people and researchers are having," John Schneider, an associate professor at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Center for HIV Elimination, told me. "This conversation is not happening in the community that needs to hear it most -- young gay and bisexual men of color."

Last summer I attended the first White House symposium on HIV/AIDS specifically targeting the LGBT community and was shocked to learn that black gay and bisexual youth -- men having sex with men, or MSM -- between the ages of 13 and 24 account for 55% of new MSM infections in that age group.

Neil Giuliano, CEO of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, told me that while it is true young men of color are more likely to contract the virus than other groups, it is important that activists and media alike push the information out to everyone to end AIDS.

"Culture influences behavior," Giuliano said. "It influences behavior people find acceptable and behavior that is unacceptable. And when you look at the arc of LGBT rights, without question the fair, accurate and inclusiveness in media has been nothing short of transformative in the experience we have in our everyday lives.

"So yeah, it would be amazing to have Connor talk about PrEP because it would help get the message out. We don't want to tell people what to do or how to live their lives. But we want them to be informed."

It's a sentiment echoed by Darrel Cummings, chief of staff at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. "We have not been parental in this," he said. "We tell people this is one of the tools that's helpful in stopping the transmission of HIV and let them make up their own minds. There are naysayers out there. There are people who say PrEP encourages people to be promiscuous, but that hasn't been our experience."

People still smoke.

People still drink and drive.

People still eat poorly.

Having a TV character talk about safe sex is not the silver bullet that will kill AIDS. But it is another mode of disseminating critical information in the fight, much in the way Vice President Joe Biden cited "Will & Grace" as a show that helped change the country's attitude toward same-sex marriage.

So yeah, it's great that Connor and the other 31 LGBT characters can have sex like everyone else on TV.

But now that we're watching, what will they show us?

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