"I'm not always sunshine and rainbows," Jonathan Van Ness tells PEOPLE, while discussing VICE TV's new documentary VICE VERSA: The Neglected Pandemic, 40 Years of HIV & AIDS

By Glenn Garner
June 02, 2021 11:10 AM
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Jonathan Van Ness has become known for exuding an infectious positive energy, in addition to some iconic one-liners.

But the Queer Eye star, 34, tells PEOPLE that navigating mental health is "not always easy" in the HIV/AIDS community, one of many topics explored in a new VICE TV documentary about the 40-year pandemic.

"I have a strong support system of friends and family who can help me when I'm feeling low, but it's not always easy," Van Ness explains. "I also believe that part of being positive is also being willing to feel your discomfort and pain, so truthfully I'm not always sunshine and rainbows, which doesn't make my energy any less beautiful."

They narrate VICE VERSA: The Neglected Pandemic, 40 Years of HIV & AIDS, which explores what it means to be HIV-positive in the United States in 2021. Marking the 40th anniversary of HIV/AIDS in the U.S., the two-hour documentary premieres Wednesday, June 2 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on VICE TV.

Los Angeles Beautycon Festival, Day 2, USA - 15 Jul 2018
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"As COVID-19 ravaged our country, there was always a sense of hope as the world mobilized to find a vaccine" says Morgan Hertzan, executive vice president & general manager, VICE TV. "We couldn't help but think about the last widespread viral outbreak, 40 years ago, and how different the reaction was. For me, this is a very personal story— I lost my sister to HIV at the age of twelve in 1993. We want this documentary to  not only honor those that were lost, but also give hope and pride to those living with HIV today."

One member of the community featured in the film is Tiffany Newsome from rural Georgia, one of the worst-hit southern states, where one in 51 people are HIV-positive. After considering suicide, she opened up on Facebook Live and eventually found a support system, which helped her realize "the real killer for people living with HIV is loneliness." In response, Newsome started a social service organization called Blossoming In Red Inc., helping provide the support she sought after finding out about her own diagnosis.

The documentary uses personal experiences and insights from communities across the country to explore the scientific advancements of the past four decades, the truth behind statistics and the disparity between how the government reacted to the HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 pandemics.

In a PEOPLE exclusive clip from The Neglected Pandemic, HIV-positive Hamilton star Javier Muñoz reflects on coming out with his status. "For the first six, seven months, I couldn't look at myself in the mirror," he says. "I couldn't be kind to myself in those first few months. The wait of stigma is quite real."

RELATED VIDEO: Queer Eye's Jonathan Van Ness Recalls the Day He Was Diagnosed HIV-Positive After Fainting

But with advancements that have reduced the risk of spreading HIV and have made the quality of life better for those with a diagnosis, Muñoz, 45, stresses that it's no longer a death sentence. He notes the "mental and emotional impact" that comes with responses from those who pity him. "I understand that you meant that with love, but it's absolutely misinformed. And that's a burden," Muñoz says.

Van Ness, who revealed their status in their 2019 memoir Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love, hopes the documentary and their platform will help close the generational divide, educating millennials and Gen Z on the pandemic.

Jonathan Van Ness
Jonathan Van Ness
| Credit: ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty

"I also know that we need more education from schools and the government on this issue," they tell PEOPLE. "I hope my advocacy is helping to bring more awareness to the fact that our educational system and the government isn't preparing folks for a lifetime of sexual health, which we really need to start educating people more robustly."

See Jonathan Van Ness, Javier Muñoz and more in VICE VERSA: The Neglected Pandemic, 40 Years of HIV & AIDS, which premieres Wednesday, June 2 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on VICE TV.