November 3, 2011
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, TheBody.com 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 TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Kellee on Twitter: @kelleent.