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Will This Generation's Magic Johnson Please Stand Up?

November 3, 2011

Kellee Terrell

Kellee Terrell

It was the disclosure heard around the world.

On Nov. 7, 1991, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, then only 32 years old, stepped up to the microphone, addressed the press and uttered the words, "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."

In "HIV/AIDS in Black America: The Uphill Battle," I wrote about my experience hearing Magic make this announcement. I was in the eighth grade at O.W. Huth Middle School in Matteson, Ill. We were in gym class when, all of a sudden, our teacher told us to stop playing, get in two lines and be very quiet. A few minutes later, over the speaker system, the principal played this press conference:

I was completely shocked. Growing up, all I "knew" about HIV was that it was a white disease, and a gay one -- except for Ryan White, who somehow contracted the virus through a blood transfusion. I was under the impression that this was not something that black folks, especially straight black men, had to worry about.

While Magic's disclosure had a vast and varying impact on all of us at that time, the most amazing contribution that it brought about was that it diversified the face of HIV. This single act of bravery was needed, because by that time, the disease was indeed quite black, there was just very little media coverage focused on it.

But as I fast-forward to the present, a full 20 years later, it's quite disheartening that Magic's message of "black straight men can contract HIV through heterosexual sex" has gotten buried in our own homophobic rhetoric. Hell, even today, people still question whether Magic is really gay and lying about it, because it's too horrifying to imagine that straight sex can be a vessel for HIV. So instead, we have used the down low as a means to explain away the alarming HIV rates among black women.

Think about it: How many times have we heard women say, "Well if my man ain't on the down low, I have nothing to worry about" or men say, "Dude, I'm not gay; I don't need to get tested for HIV or use rubbers."

It's ironic, because Magic didn't think he was at risk either. The only reason he was tested was because the Los Angeles Lakers took out a life insurance policy on him as protection for a 3-million-dollar loan they gave him to supplement his salary. Testing for HIV was a routine part of Magic's physical exam that just happened to garner an unexpected result.


Magic's story often makes me wonder just how many heterosexual African-American men have never asked for an HIV test or been offered one by their doctor because they didn't fit the profile. How many straight black men have unknowingly been positive for years and therefore gone untreated and put their sex partners at risk for HIV? How many find out about their status when they enter the prison system because that's the first time they have ever been tested in their life?

These questions need to be asked, because there are many reasons why we comprise the majority of the newly diagnosed and the undiagnosed HIV cases in the U.S. And despite the mounds of trustworthy scientific data that explicitly state that undercover brothas are not fueling HIV rates in our community, we have yet to collectively experience our Oprah "Aha!" moment concerning this.

This is a fact: Straight men can contract HIV from women and then pass the virus on to other women and so on. Thus, straight men who do not get tested and treated help spread the disease in our community. Not to mention, other factors -- such as a lack of access to quality health care; undiagnosed and untreated sexually transmitted diseases; poverty; gender oppression; high community viral load; and drug use -- exacerbate the epidemic in black America.

Sigh. HIV has been around for 30 years and yet so many of us still don't get it.

Maybe more HIV organizations need to set a better example by having more campaigns and programs that focus on heterosexual men and condom use. Maybe the media, included, needs to write more articles about straight men living with the disease. And maybe more health care professionals need to check their own biases at the door and be less worried about offending patients and just test them anyway.

Or maybe what we need to set all of this into motion is another Magic Johnson.

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.

And no, I'm not saying that some tatted up rapper rocking jeggings who admits to being positive is going to make AIDS Drug Assistance Program waiting lists disappear, or help researchers create a cure, or even make stigma disappear overnight. But in our celebrity-obsessed culture, where Beyonce's (real and fake) baby bump runs the world, it would be naive of us to think that this generation's Magic Johnson couldn't drastically change our perception of this disease. Most important, a new Magic could give other straight black men who are living with HIV an affirming reminder that they are not alone.

So then the final question remains: What will it take for him to come forward?

Maybe a seven-figure book deal or a hefty payment for an exclusive interview on ABC are the types of incentives he needs. Apparently, that's how the industry works nowadays. But thankfully, Magic came out with his status because he felt compelled to. In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, he said, "It was a difficult decision just to go public. Cookie and I had to decide. Finally we said, 'It's the right thing to do.' And then it wasn't difficult."

And he's right -- it was the right thing to do. It's just a shame that, after two decades, Magic remains the last standing famous straight man with HIV who stood up and spoke out.

Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for and

Follow Kellee on Twitter: @kelleent.

More From This Resource Center

Magic Johnson Wants You to Know: He Isn't Cured of HIV

Living With HIV? African Americans Share Their Advice

This article was provided by TheBody.

See Also
20 Years of Magic: How One Man's HIV Disclosure Inspired Others
Magic Johnson Is NOT Cured of HIV
Fame and HIV: 10 of History's Biggest HIV-Positive Celebrities
More on Celebrities and HIV/AIDS

Reader Comments:

Comment by: David Reid (Los Angeles) Wed., Oct. 3, 2012 at 2:29 pm UTC
A lot of people think AIDS is over. A lot of people think HIV has been cured.
We know that is far from the truth.

Beginning in 1996 on World AIDS Day I have produced an electronic memorial to remember the lost lives and lost loves. It began on cable television throughout the Los Angeles market and and now via the internet reached every corner of the planet.

The program is very stark in its content. Names appear in stark white letters on a densely black screen. They hold each for three and a half seconds, or the time it takes for a breath. Then it fades and goes. Just like the life it represents.

There is room for 24,680 names in the 24 hour cycle. We do not have enough names to fill the roster for 2012. World AIDS Day is less than two months away.

The program runs in EVERY time zone in the world for 24 hours. If your computer says it is December 1st AIDSWatch will automatically run.

Here is a preview of the program. Turn up your speakers.

We do not need your money.

We need your help. We do not have enough names to fill the program.

Please spread the word about the program. Please feel free to lift and duplicate any art from the website.

Please submit names of friends and family you might have lost. The computer program we have will remove duplicate names. And yes, Freddie Mercury has been submitted.

It cost nothing to add a name. It never will. this is a full equality art project.

Here is our website. Please check it out:

If we donít act together to keep the public aware of HIV/AIDS we will have no one to blame but ourselves. AIDSWatch is a great piece of art to play on a computer during ANY and ALL World AIDS Day events. And it is free.

David Reid

Los Angeles, California
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Comment by: John (Oklahoma City, OK) Fri., Aug. 3, 2012 at 1:53 am UTC
Why can't this subject be addressed more? I'm a straight guy. I never thought twice about HIV, always believed it to be something I'd never have to worry about. I was diagnosed 6 months ago and it was the shock of my life (guess it is for everyone) But even the health department lady didn't believe I got it from heterosexual contact. She kept asking, "Well wasn't there just one time...C'mon tell the truth here." It happens to straight guys, too. Please don't fool yourself and let others be fooled as well.
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Comment by: mark (new york ny) Sun., Nov. 13, 2011 at 1:34 pm UTC
I believe Magic Johnson IS gay. The rate of female to male transmission in the U.S. is very low. It's much more likely he got it through homosexual sex, which is taboo in the world of basketball.
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Comment by: Trish Steen (Kansas City, MO) Thu., Nov. 10, 2011 at 1:16 pm UTC
Seems to me that over the years of this virus we have mistakenly excluded certain populations from prevention messages which is now biting us all in the ass. Had the message in the 1980's been to target ALL HUMAN BEINGS, we wouldn't be dealing with stigma today. If we put the message out there that HIV is a "HUMAN" virus (read, HUMAN Immunodeficiency Virus) & stop targeting just some populations, we are really doing a disservice to all of us. Target everyone, not just a few. Common sense, no? HIV, its HUMAN. I am a white heterosexual woman & HIV+ since 1989. Where was the message that I could be at risk? Never heard one, never realized I was at risk because I was told only white gay men get HIV. It's bull... Always has been & always will be. Are we all not human? Human is the first word in HIV, why aren't we focusing on that? If years ago it was classified as such, maybe I would have insisted on condom use. Maybe... I like to think so, anyway.
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Comment by: David Paul Jobling (Adelaide, South Australia) Thu., Nov. 17, 2011 at 3:53 pm UTC
Say WHAT?! HIV has always been a virus that does not discriminate - and the message was firmly put out that way from the start - the fact that certain members of the population mobilised to support their own defranchised communities is no excuse for anyone to suggest otherwise. HIV was not the first sexually transmitted disease (STI) to come along so there were plenty of reasons why a woman would have been insisting on a condom in the 1980's - shifting the blame by implication is not a fair thing to do. You are right - Human has always been part of the name of the virus - and we're all human.

Comment by: Drew (AUS) Wed., Nov. 9, 2011 at 7:08 pm UTC
The African American Community I argue are still in denial.

The Church. The African American Community must liberate themselves from the homophobia of the Church, only then will the African American Community look itself in the mirror with truth.

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Comment by: pecolalid (New York,NY) Wed., Nov. 9, 2011 at 1:03 pm UTC
Black guys are coming out of prisons infected and spread AIDS to black females and males. Large number of black males in and out of prison. In the joint they bump up for unprotected booty sex.
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Comment by: Myles Helfand ( Wed., Nov. 9, 2011 at 4:04 pm UTC
I approved this comment mostly to note that this is a myth. Guys aren't going into prisons HIV-free and coming out in droves suddenly infected with the virus. The biggest reason why you have so many people diagnosed with HIV in prison is likely that prison is often the first time these people have ever even had an HIV test.

Comment by: Antiphon (Cologne, Germany) Wed., Nov. 9, 2011 at 5:34 am UTC
I disagree with the notion, that, given the HIV prevalence rate in this country, a heterosexual (as a way of transmission) celebrity must be out there. While I acknowledge that Female-to-Male HIV transmission is possible (and DOES happen), it is still rare in developed countries, where HIV-1 M-B is prevalent. I think, as does the RKI, the German CDC equivalent, that a "significant" portion of SELF-REPORTED males who acquired HIV heterosexually indeed had secret homosexual contacts and rather got it from that. Which would be translated as "Down-Low" in your lingo. It is only Aidspeak, the language of death, which seeks to paint heterosexual contact in the same colours as gay contact (gay as in "male homosexual", because strict female homosexuals have practically no risk), an issue I am adressing not because of you, but because it is so prevalent with similar editorials. It is the noble lie "It is not who you are, but what you do" that is pumping funds into HIV prevention aimed at low risk heterosexuals and therefore stealing it from high-risk gays. Just to put it into the right perspective, a typical heterosexual womanizer who uses no condoms is STILL at lower risk for HIV than a typical gay man in a relationship who USES CONDOMS. Studies have shown that many gays OVERESTIMATE the protection that condoms offer. It is therefore unethical to demand money for low-risk heterosexuals, while there is still more (honest!) education for gays out there. Prep being offered to every gay man in addition to safer sex is what really can turn the tide in developed countries, not concentrating on the few cases of heterosexual transmissions, and I am talking of real transmission, not self-reported.
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Replies to this comment:
Comment by: Myles Helfand ( Wed., Nov. 9, 2011 at 4:07 pm UTC
So you're implying that most straight men with HIV got it by sleeping with men, even though they're not self-identifying as gay. But yet you want PrEP and other HIV prevention efforts to focus on gay men, not "low-risk heterosexuals" -- even though the very men you're talking about (who don't exist in nearly the numbers you believe) would perceive themselves to be "low-risk heterosexuals"?

Where in this equation are women being protected? Or are we assuming that every woman with HIV was infected by a gay man?

Comment by: Ty T. (Lansing, MI) Mon., Nov. 7, 2011 at 5:14 am UTC
I love this article. I've actually written about this as well. I always thought it was crazy that I had to worry about getting tested but a heteerosexual male only worried about having an unwanted child. I felt like because of my sexuality I was put in the mind frame that I could potentially become HIV positive just for the mere fact that HIV is linked to homosexuality, so it was constantly in my face to be tested. There is always safe sex and HI awareness in gay settings but I would never just see it out in the open where a majority of people are presumed to be heterosexual. therefore, it is not made as if no one but gay males have to worry about being tested. I feel as though this adds to the stigma because it targets one group of people instead of letting people know that everyone is at risk. Magic johnson did diversify HIV but again people couldn't get past a bias. So now I feel as though the face of HIV/AIDs is looked at as a black and gay disease. Would more people coming up and dixclosing their status or even getting tested help? I believe so, but if people keep it a taboo subject to talk about then no one will get tested. I tell people all the time that the statistics aren't accurate because the CDC prevalence surveilance only monitors sexual behaviors and not sexual identies, so its not always about who your having sex with but that your having unprotected sex period. So since that applys to more than one group of people then it is a problem for all. Why no one sees that...I have no clue other than a veil of stigmatiztion shielding them from looking at the reality of this situation from every angle.
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