20 Years Ago Today, Magic Johnson Made HIV Not Just a White Gay Male Disease

Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive twenty years ago today. He did more for HIV/AIDS awareness than former President Ronald Reagan.

By Jorge Rivas Nov 07, 2011

It was November 7, 1991. 3pm.

I was 8 years old, and just 6 miles away from the Great Western Forum where one of the greatest basketball players to ever live was announcing to the world that he had contracted the HIV-virus and was retiring from professional basketball.

When then-32 year old Johnson was making his announcement, in the eyes of the millions of viewers watching the press conference on television, he was also announcing he was dying.

In 1991, AIDS was the second leading cause of death among men 25-44 years of age.

The first question at the press conference came from a reporter asking Johnson how he was doing emotionally as "mortality becomes more apparent."

Johnson faced the room full of reporters less than 24-hours after getting his third and final confirmation that he tested positive. He didn’t believe the first two test results.

By facing the world and coming out as HIV-positive, Johnson changed the face of HIV and AIDS. HIV was not just a white gay man’s disease now.

Johnson was making these statements just a decade after the first incidence of the AIDS virus were identified by the Center for Disease Control–at a time when all people knew about HIV/AIDS was that people died from it.

Also of importance was the fact that Johnson made his announcement a year after Ryan White died. White had become well-known in the 1980’s by contracting HIV through a blood transfusion. He became a household name after not being allowed to go to school because his classmates and their parents were afraid they would contract the disease.

Johnson, however, put a different face to HIV. He showed that it could impact anyone.

The press conference also made a tremendous difference for the millions of men and women battling the stigma that came with the disease. Johnson, who smiled and maintained his composure throughout the press conference, had given people hope.

When a reporter asked if he was scared, Johnson immediately said that was wasn’t. "It’s another challenge, it’s another chapter in your life, it’s like your back is against the wall and you just have to keep on swinging," he said.

And it’s a battle that those in power had largely abstained from up until that point. Johnson’s announcement did a whole lot more for HIV/AIDS awareness than former president Ronald Reagan, whose eight years in office coincided with the disease’s rapid spread across the country and around the globe. Millions died while the U.S. government remained silent. The Reagan administration’s silence about the disease continued until 1988, when the first national, coordinated AIDS education campaign was rolled out. That year, 107 million brochures entitled "Understanding AIDS" were mailed to every household across the country. By this point, nearly 83,000 cases of AIDS had been identified in the United States, and over 45,000 people had died.

The cover of "Understanding AIDS" by Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.

Johnson made his announcement 3 years after the brochures were mailed. And for many, it was the first real acknowledgement that the epidemic didn’t affect only white gay men.

Johnson was magic. He was a public figure, who was rich, straight, married and black. Everything that Americans thought HIV/AIDS was not.

"I think sometimes we think, well, only gay people can get it – ‘It’s not going to happen to me’. And here I am saying that it can happen to anybody, even me, Magic Johnson," he said at the press conference.

Johnson’s announcement had a massive impact on America’s public awareness of AIDS; in the month after he revealed his status, the number of people being tested for HIV in New York City increased by almost 60 percent, the New York Times reported in 1991. Other parts of the country saw similar, sharp increases in testing rates.

His story offers an ideal example of how getting tested and getting into care can save lives. But with that comes conspiracy theorists who have consistently pointed to Johnson’s health as a sign that HIV either doesn’t exist or isn’t a big deal.

"You look at people like Magic Johnson, and you realize that you can live a healthy, happy, long life," Oprah told viewers last year in October. Her guest on the show quickly reminded her that Johnson has many luxuries available to him that most HIV positive people don’t. And ultimately, even if patients do get the same results, taking several pills a day that are sometimes tough on your body isn’t a luxury, the guest explained to Oprah.

There’s still work to be done. HIV rates are rising, especially among young African-American gay and bisexual men. Young black gay and bisexual men are the only population in the U.S. in which the pace of HIV’s spread is increasing, according to a study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in August.

We still need Magic Johnson. There have even been some, like Kellee Terrell at TheBody.com, who have called for more black public figures living with the disease in secret to come out publicly about their status. There’s still a tremendous need for young black and Latinos in the United States to know that the disease exists, and get information on how to get tested.

Until that happens, Johnson’s legacy and bravery are still worthy of celebrating. His press conference gave HIV-positive people around the world hope. He also made it okay for 8-year-olds, like me at the time, to be able to ask about a disease they knew little or nothing about.

His philanthropic organization, the Magic Johnson Foundation, has established full-service treatment centers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and Jacksonville, Fla., that offer free or low-cost healthcare for those dealing with the virus. According to the foundation’s website, it has tested nearly 30,000 people and given 1,000 positive diagnoses for the virus.

Johnson currently lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Cookie. They were married just a month before Johnson announced he was HIV-positive. "I have to tell you, I’m proudest of my life off the court," Johnson recently told the Los Angeles Times. "There will always be great basketball players who bounce that little round ball, but my proudest moments are affecting people’s lives, effecting change, being a role model in the community."