Why Do People Still Think Magic Johnson Doesn't Have HIV?

Twenty-Five Years After the NBA Icon Publicly Disclosed His Status, Conspiracy Theories Continue to Play Front and Center

Magic Johnson
Magic Johnson
Rafael Amado Deras [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Almost twenty-five years ago, Los Angeles Lakers basketball legend Earvin "Magic" Johnson stunned the world when announced he was HIV positive.

At the time, many -- including myself -- naively believed HIV/AIDS to be a "white, gay male disease" and nothing for us to worry about it. But, after the then 32-year-old spoke his truth, that perception began to change. Looking back, this moment foreshadowed the current face of this pandemic: One that is disproportionately black.

Over the years, as we've witnessed this shift, we have been forced to be more knowledgeable about HIV/AIDS.

We've witnessed long-term survivors such as Magic serve as walking testimonials that HIV doesn't have to be a death sentence. We've seen public health ramp up our understanding of the basics of the disease and deepen our understanding of how the intersections of race, class, gender, sexual orientation and stigma continue to fuel the epidemic in black communities. Minus the embarrassingly homophobic "Down Low" myth, we've seen black media outlets do a decent job of reminding us that the epidemic is still our problem.

And, most importantly, we've seen a boom of black AIDS activism and public service announcements that continue to this day because our lives depend on it.

But, even with this progress, it's clear we have more work to do: The rates among black gay and bisexual men and trans women are truly alarming. Despite having trusted, scientific information at our fingertips, we're not where we need to be. It's especially frustrating to see the internet continue to serve as a boiling pot of fringe conspiracy theories, AIDS denialism and ignorance that simmers over and seeps into our collective consciousness. What's truly interesting is how a chunk of that mistrust continues to surround Magic's own HIV status.

So, what is really going on?

Before we get to the "why," let's talk about the "what" and debunk the myths that just refuse to die.

"Magic Johnson Doesn't Really Have HIV"

Since his 1991 disclosure, we've all heard folks peddle the persistent belief that Johnson either never had HIV or has been cured of the disease (thanks to deceased herbalist Dr. Sebi). Here's the tea: Neither one is true.

I get it: Big Pharm is greedy and makes profit off other's people's sickness (i.e., the skyrocketing prices of EpiPen and Daraprim). Chris Rock had a point when he said, "Money's not in the cure -- it's in the medicine." But, even in all of those truths, there's no cure for HIV/AIDS, yet.

And, while Magic's wife Cookie Johnson once told Ebony that her husband "was healed" of HIV, that wasn't some sinister slip of the tongue. That was her misspeaking about Magic's viral load being undetectable due to his consistent access to lifesaving antiretrovirals and quality health care -- which is definitely a bonus of having wealth and access, but it's not some wicked conspiracy. Sadly, that's just called capitalism.

Also, keep in mind that, over the years, Magic has consistently stressed that he is positive and that, despite being an ambassador for a drug company, he isn't getting first dibs on special meds. He's also denied rumors that he has traveled abroad to get an herbal cure, mostly because one just doesn't exist.

Why is it so difficult to take him at his word? Why are folks still struggling to believe in science?

"Well, His Wife Is Negative, So He Has to Be Too"

Yes, when Cookie found out that Magic was HIV-positive, they had been having unprotected sex -- as most married couples do -- and she was even pregnant at the time. While others in her same situation might have tested positive, it just happened that she didn't. (Remember: Transmission isn't always cut and dry. Many factors play into who seroconverts and why.)

None of that negates the fact that her husband is still HIV positive and, to this day, she remains HIV negative.

"But Women Cannot Transmit HIV to Men"

Part of Magic's narrative around his transmission is that he contracted the virus from heterosexual sex, which is still hard for some to believe and even leads them to question the basketball legend's sexual orientation.

Here's the deal: Yes, it is biologically harder for a woman to transmit HIV to a man during unprotected vaginal sex compared with unprotected anal sex, but that doesn't mean it's impossible -- or that it doesn't happen. HIV can enter a man through the tip of his penis or a cut or abrasion on his genitals. Also, if a man has an untreated sexually transmitted infection, that raises his chances of seroconverting if he comes into contact with someone who is HIV positive and isn't undetectable. Sadly, we just don't talk about it, but we should. Because, according to the Centers for Disease and Prevention, in 2010 more than 2700 black heterosexual men received an HIV diagnosis (compared with 5300 black women).

Just think about how many how straight brothas' fall through the testing and treatment cracks because we can't shake the idea that it can't really happen to them.

While these myths around Magic continue on, it's important to point out that AIDS conspiracies (i.e., AIDS is a government conspiracy to kill off "undesirables") existed before he was disclosed. On one hand, this paranoia exists in black communities because people are not educated on the issues or allow their personal biases to cloud their judgments. But, a huge chunk of that suspicion is justified and based on the tumultuous and disturbing relationship African Americans have had with the medical community.

One word: Tuskegee.

And those fears don't lessen because we've had a black president for the past eight years. We've seen study after study reveal how racial bias continues to play a role in how black folks are treated in the exam room -- from who receives pain medication, to who receives faster quality treatment. We're also privy to how little our government regards black life -- from the water poisoning in Flint, Michigan, to the devastating state and police violence on black and brown bodies in America.

So, I can empathize with how easy it is to listen to that little voice in the back of your mind that pressures you to believe that Magic is cured, that AIDS is manmade or that bananas or herbs can rid you of the virus. But, at some point, we have to shake those doubts and surrender to the science because, if we don't, the only ones we're hurting (and killing) are ourselves.