On November 7, 1991, one of basketball's most dazzling and respected players, Magic Johnson, called a press conference. Most sports insiders knew Johnson was about to retire from the Los Angeles Lakers, but few knew the reason. A stunned America listened as Johnson dropped a bombshell: "Because of the HIV virus I have attained, I will have to announce my retirement from the Lakers today."
Certainly Magic Johnson was under no obligation to inform America of his HIV status. He didn't have to make those subsequent revelations about the sexual risks he took on the path to contracting HIV (in fact, not a single reporter present at his press conference asked how he contracted the virus). He didn't have to encourage men to "get out your hat, your raincoat -- whatever you want to call a condom -- and wear it." But he did. Magic Johnson, a celebrity of enormous magnitude, tried to make a difference. "We think sometimes it can only happen to gay people, it can't happen to me. And here I am saying it can happen to anyone -- even me, Magic Johnson."
By the time of Johnson's announcement, AIDS had been killing people for a decade. Many Americans were expecting a quick obituary for this accomplished athlete. Sports fan or not, it was almost impossible not to be moved by his defiant promise that "life is going to go on for me, and I will be a happy man."
Ten years later, Magic Johnson, now 42, says, "Everything is great, wonderful. I celebrate life and live every day. Every day is a holiday for me." Johnson, now a wealthy businessman with part ownership in movie theatre and fitness club chains, frequently tours with his exhibition team, has hosted a short-lived talk show, written an autobiography, briefly coached the Lakers, owns a part of that same team, and continues to do celebrity endorsements and act as a spokesman in the fight against AIDS.
Magic Johnson has not developed AIDS. By his own admission he is HIV positive, but asymptomatic. He has not been ill and he corrects any reporter who refers to him as "sick."
"The medicine has done its thing. I think I've done my part," Johnson says now. "And God has done His part. It's mind over matter, too. I've never felt I would be sick or get sick. I thought I would be here."
Though he may not represent the average HIV-positive American, only the most fervent cynic could dismiss Johnson's simple eloquence.
Last November, as newspapers and magazines reported the ten-year anniversary of Johnson's HIV disclosure and his continued good health and full life, I mourned the loss of two friends killed by AIDS-related illness that same month. In all, a half dozen of my friends and acquaintances succumbed to AIDS complications in 2001. Yes, even as we acknowledge the hope someone like Magic Johnson exemplifies, real people still continue to die.
If only more people were as eloquent as Magic Johnson. Every year people all over the world say stridently stupid, misinformed or absurd things about AIDS. From the dissidents who claim HIV does not cause AIDS, to the sanctimonious who swear it's God's wrath, here are ten oratorically-challenged people who opened their mouths once too often in 2001.
Dr. Michael Mellman
He's been Magic Johnson's private physician for the past twenty years. How does the Magic man maintain his excellent health?
"There's nothing experimental, nothing high-tech," Mellman said of Johnson's combination therapy regimen. "Anyone who can afford healthcare can afford what he's doing."
Hey doc, did it slip your mind that 42 million Americans don't have health insurance because they either cannot afford it or it is not available to them due to a preexisting illness? Did you know that the American Medical Association considers this a national crisis? Insured or not, the very wealthy Magic Johnson can afford good doctors and expensive drugs. And speaking of those drugs, if they aren't experimental and high-tech as you claim, then what are they? Junior Mints? Listen, HIV drugs sailed through accelerated clinical trials and were rushed onto the market, and that makes them experimental. High-tech? Well, last I checked, the pharmaceutical companies weren't developing these drugs in their basements with chemistry sets.
Pope John Paul II
It's bad enough that year after year he continues to regard condoms as a "morally illicit" means of prevention, steadfastly refusing to acknowledge that, abstinence aside, condoms are the only effective tool we have in stopping the spread of HIV. On December 1, 2001, The Holy See (an ironic moniker for someone so blind) marked World AIDS Day by saying, "Dear brothers and sisters sick with AIDS, don't feel alone! The pope is near you with love and supports you in your difficult path." What's with this guy? He sounds like the pope of Disneyland. Kind words aside, he's proven to be profoundly irrelevant on the subject of AIDS.
Thabo Mbeki, President of South Africa
HIV now infects one in four adult South Africans and is expected to kill between five and seven million South Africans over the next decade. Mbeki, ignoring scientific evidence to the contrary, claims publicly and repeatedly that "a virus cannot cause a syndrome." Worse, he deliberately underfunds clinics and blocks access to HIV drugs. Ultimately, Mbeki's views undermine health officials' ability to persuade South Africans to use condoms or even get tested for HIV. Neither a doctor nor a scientist, Mbeki has not simply created confusion among South Africans; he's committing genocide.
Shane Barbi of the Barbi Twins
Sia and Shane Barbi have appeared in two sold out issues of Playboy. These identical twin women pose nude together. I'm told this is a straight man's fantasy. Personally, it creeps me out. So anyway, I'm watching "Entertainment Tonight" not long ago and the twins are talking candidly about their shared battle with bulimia, an eating disorder characterized by bouts of excessive eating followed by self-induced vomiting or purging with laxatives. Shane, the chattier of the two, wanted America to know that, "Bulimia is much like AIDS." You know, the last thing I need is a bulimic nude pinup twin comparing AIDS to an eating disorder. Shane, honey, your problem was solved when you ate a meal and allowed it to digest naturally. And just so you know, you can't get rid of AIDS with a hundred laxatives.
President George Bush appointed him director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy -- the first openly gay AIDS "Czar." So what? The reality is that after twenty years of AIDS, our government has failed to create large-scale prevention efforts essential to controlling this epidemic. All along, it has been community-based organizations that have struggled to educate and provide services. Queer or not, Scott Evertz has no substantive AIDS experience. None. By all accounts he's a decent guy, but George W. Bush has already undermined him by delegating authority on AIDS issues to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
So when Evertz characterizes AIDS service organizations' prevention efforts as "being fairly effective," and then drones on about how the Bush administration is "responding really positively to the continuing need for HIV/AIDS care, treatment and prevention," it kinda makes me want to remind him that he lacks the credentials and credibility to make such observations.
This San Francisco activist wreaks havoc through an alliance with a dissident chapter of ACT UP whose members reject the idea that HIV causes AIDS. Petrelis has left threatening and obscene messages for Department of Public Health officials, University of California HIV researchers, and San Francisco journalists. He's used violence to disrupt treatment forums and stalked other activists who disagree with his views. Not content with those tactics, he and his fellow AIDS denialists have urged conservative congressmen to slash AIDS funding and gut the CDC's HIV prevention budget. A series of restraining orders failed to stop Petrelis, who was eventually arrested in late November and charged with one felony count of conspiracy, three counts of felony stalking, four counts of felony terrorist threats and eleven counts of misdemeanor harassment. His justification for all this? The need for "a new phase of activism." Go to jail! Go directly to jail!
As newly appointed Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Rehnquist reviewed HIV prevention workshops and materials utilized by San Francisco's Stop AIDS Project. Why? Michael Petrelis (the rabid dog listed above) contacted conservative Representative Mark Souter (R-Indiana) about the workshops in an attempt to have the organization's funding cut. Souter contacted Rehnquist and requested the review. As a result, Rehnquist freaked out, concluding the program's "Booty Call" and "Great Sex" workshops could be viewed as "obscene" and as "encouraging, directly . . . sexual activity." It mattered little to Rehnquist that a locally appointed Centers for Disease Control review panel had already approved the materials. Nor was she able to comprehend that the workshops are designed for gay men who are already having sex (like it would take a workshop to convince San Francisco's gay men to have sex . . .). There's a difference between explicit and obscene, Janet, and when it comes to evaluating the content of a safer sex program designed for gay men, you might want to consider the possibility that you're a poor judge.
Tom Coburn, M.D.
After reading an analysis of 138 condom studies released by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), this former House Republican went Chicken Little. Seems the report concluded condoms work well in curtailing transmission of HIV and gonorrhea, but only so-so in preventing other STDs. Coburn, who moonlights with ultraconservative groups like Focus on the Family and Family Research Council, overreacted spectacularly, saying, "This report means that when condom use is discussed, it is no longer medically accurate -- or legal for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) -- to refer to sex as 'safe' or 'protected.'" And then, like all hysterical right-wingers, he had to call for someone's resignation, in this case CDC director Jeffrey Koplan, M.D. Now the rest of the story: We've always known that condoms do not necessarily prevent transmission of all STDs. Some sexually transmitted diseases, like chlamydia, genital warts and genital herpes can be present on the skin, making skin-to-skin contact a problem. Condoms can reduce the chance of infection, but not eliminate it. Even more interesting is the fact that Tom Coburn is a doctor -- he ought to know the lowdown on condoms already, and if he didn't know and was actually surprised by anything in that NIH report, then you have to question his intelligence, or at least his motives.
Last summer this gay, conservative commentator and writer was hounded into admitting he had posted Internet ads expressing his interest in meeting other men for bareback sex. Sullivan, who routinely uses personal experiences to illustrate his point of view in books and articles, would not confirm whether or not he engages in unprotected sex, saying only, "I have no intention of discussing my sexual life in this respect"-- but noting that he tries to "have sex only with other men who are HIV positive." I might be willing to support his plea for privacy if this weren't the same Andrew Sullivan who's repeatedly rebuked gay men for promiscuity, chides other public figures (most notably Bill Clinton) for not being truthful regarding sexual matters, and wrote an article in late 1996 entitled "When Plagues End," implying that AIDS was over. Frankly, I don't care what he and his sexual partners do in private, but I do think Mr. Sullivan is extraordinarily naive if he really believes adopting a persona called "RawMuscleGluts" guarantees him anonymity or privacy in cyberspace. Please.
George W. Bush's choice for U.S. Attorney General once said, "the terrible swift sword of the dread AIDS disease is surely what in other ages would be acknowledged as a sign of God's wrath." Uh huh, and having John Ashcroft be Attorney General is probably a sign of the apocalypse.
In the midst of responding to the worst terrorist attacks in our nation's history, Ashcroft found time to order Drug Enforcement Administration agents to bust medical marijuana clubs in California, thus ignoring voter-supported initiatives allowing for the use of pot in treating the side effects and suffering of thousands of people with glaucoma, cancer and AIDS. In Oregon, Ashcroft issued an order threatening to revoke the licenses of doctors who prescribe drugs to help terminally ill patients in chronic pain end their lives, striking a blow to an assisted-suicide law twice approved by voters. He opposes needle exchange programs . . . twice refused to co-sponsor the Ryan White CARE Act reauthorization . . . well, you get the picture. Quoting Attorney John Ashcroft is irrelevant; his actions speak for themselves.