On this day 20 years ago, the world was hit with an announcement that completely took us by surprise: Basketball legend Earvin "Magic" Johnson was HIV-positive and he was retiring from the game. He told the press, "Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today. I just want to make clear, first of all, that I do not have the AIDS disease ... but the HIV virus."
Back in 1991, the notion that someone who identified as a heterosexual man could contract HIV from a woman seemed foreign. Thanks to what the media focused on then, most people (including my 8th grade self) believed that the only people who could contract HIV were white gay men, IV drug users, or hemophiliacs like the famous case of teenaged Ryan White, who became a national poster child for the disease. It never really dawned on me that this epidemic could affect one of America's most loved and regarded basketball stars.
There were so many lessons learned from Magic's act of bravery.
Some people who never thought they were at risk got tested, some people who were positive found the inspiration to tell their own family that they were living with HIV and some people started to rethink their own need to practice safer sex. But one of the biggest lessons learned from Magic's courage was that it put a famous Black face on this heavily-stigmatized disease that would come to disproportionately affect Blacks.
And as we find ourselves two decades later, the HIV/AIDS stats prove this to be true.
Black Americans account for only 14 percent of the U.S. population, yet they account for 52 percent of all new HIV infections each year. And it must be noted that the so-called "downlow" lifestyle isn't the reason why we disproportionately suffer from this disease. Lack of access to health care, poverty, untreated and undiagnosed STIs that only increase our risk of contracting HIV, IV drug use and lack of needle exchange programs, poor health literacy and high rates of incarceration are all major factors, to name a few.
But even with what we know about this epidemic, some of us still continue to not get tested or believe that this is still about the "down-low." Which is truly sad to me because, 20 years later, Magic's message — that straight men can contract HIV from women — seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
So what will it take for some of us to listen?
In an op-ed for TheBody.com, a website about HIV/AIDS, I wrote that perhaps what it will take is for this generation's Magic Johnson to stand up and speak out. I wrote:
Someone who possesses the same level of fame, power and swagger as the Dwyane Wades, the 50 Cents and the Jay-Zs of the world, and who is willing to go public with his HIV status. While this person has yet to materialize, given the HIV prevalence rate in this country, I know he exists.
Obviously, there is a high price for being public. (Just look at the lack of out gay and lesbian African-American celebrities.) Publicly disclosing one's HIV status could potentially mean kissing those million-dollar sports drink endorsements goodbye; seeing a serious drop in album sales in an already suffering music industry; losing support from one's family, friends and fans; and constantly having to defend one's masculinity and sexual orientation. But most important, it could mean losing everything that one has sacrificed and worked so hard for. And such extreme loss may not be worth playing the role of the next great HIV poster boy.
But staying silent won't bring about the change that we so desperately need.
In the end, as we commemorate this day and its impact on society, I hope that whoever this person is, this straight African-American celebrity, he somehow finds the same courage and feels compelled to do what Magic did, two decades ago. Because Magic shouldn't be the only one in the spotlight doing the right thing.
How has Magic Johnson inspired you?
(Photo: AP Photo/Craig Fujii)