20 Years of Magic: How One Man's HIV Disclosure Inspired Others

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On Nov. 7, 1991, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, the Los Angeles Lakers basketball superstar, announced in a televised press conference that he was HIV positive. This came as a huge shock to millions of people who had believed for so long that HIV was a disease affecting only gay, white men and IV drug users.

His disclosure became a serious game changer. It prompted people who had never thought they were at risk to get tested; it encouraged people to educate themselves about HIV transmission and safer sex; and it lessened stigma and emboldened others to be open with their own HIV status.

So to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Magic's HIV disclosure, we reached out to the HIV community to see how Magic impacted their own work, lives and perception of the HIV epidemic in the U.S.

Kenyon Farrow, Brooklyn, N.Y.; Author and Activist

Magic Johnson's announcement of his HIV status did a lot of good, because it got many people talking about the virus, and the myths vs. the truth about prevention. At the same time, it also increased a certain amount of homophobia -- he had to continuously announce he was heterosexual, and many people still wondered about his sexuality. In many ways, it set up the witch hunt for "men on the down low" that would soon begin a few years later.

Maria Mejia, Miami, Fla.; Activist and Peer Educator; Diagnosed in 1991

A few months after I was diagnosed at the age of 18, I saw him on TV making his announcement. Even though I knew of Ryan White, Magic Johnson was someone I related to more. I actually felt I was not the only one in the world with the virus. It was a very difficult time back then; there was much more stigma and ignorance, and people were dying of AIDS constantly. I always relate, and write about, me being diagnosed with the time he came out and said he had HIV. I will always be connected to him in this way. And after these 20 years it is very sad that people still lack information on the virus, and carry so much ignorance and stigma, or self-stigma.

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Many people -- young and old -- think he is cured, because he looks good. They are not respecting the virus! I see many posters here in Miami with a picture of him that say, "Living Well With HIV." Well, we are living, fighting and taking our meds, but it is not an easy illness! And I just don't want young people to get the wrong message from this like: "Oh, if I get infected, I will be like Magic Johnson and it's nothing to be worried about." AIDS is a BITCH!

Rusti Miller-Hill, New York, N.Y.; Advocate; Diagnosed in 1991

Magic Johnson's disclosure gave me permission to acknowledge my own status. The stigma and the shame were lessened by his coming out. My mother stopped cleaning the toilet after I used it. I used his coming out as an opportunity to speak the words HIV/AIDS out loud.

Jermaine Wright, Kalamazoo, Mich.; Peer Educator; Diagnosed in 2009

Magic Johnson revealing his status helped and hurt some people. A lot of youth out here don't understand the importance of HIV medications and they feel as though, because Magic Johnson has so much money, he can afford health care that we do not have access to. This almost makes some people feel as though, if you are HIV positive and not wealthy, you will not have access to great care. This is not true. Magic should educate us all in more detail.

fogcityjohn, San Francisco, Calif.; Lawyer; Diagnosed in 2004

On hearing Magic Johnson's announcement that he had HIV, my first thought was that it was a gutsy move. Johnson was a beloved NBA star, and he had to know what the revelation would mean for his career and his reputation. But he stepped out into the light and braved all the stigma and hysteria of the pre-cocktail era. I also hoped that his coming out would make people realize HIV can affect anyone, and would spur increased research and prevention efforts. While that didn't happen, Johnson has become an important advocate for all poz people.

Nina Martinez, Decatur, Ga.; STD Policy Epidemiologist; Diagnosed in 1991

When I was diagnosed, it was 1991, the same year as Magic Johnson's announcement. The doctor said to me, "You have the human immunodeficiency virus. Do you know what that is?" Now, I don't know what 8-year-old knows what HIV is, but I knew the month prior I had heard the Magic Johnson announcement, and I thought, "This is great," because I was related to Magic Johnson in some way. So I started to tell that to my elementary school classmates. They would say, "That's so cool. How?" And I would tell them I have HIV. They don't know what HIV is either, but they go and tell their parents, "This girl in my school is related to Magic Johnson!"

Becky Allen, New York City, N.Y.; Site Manager for TheBody.com

People still sometimes ask me: "Where were you for Magic Johnson's announcement?" It isn't exactly a "Where were you when JFK was shot?" moment for my generation, but I remember. Well, sort of remember. My class was sitting in the bleachers of the school gym and the physical education teacher told us. I don't know if it was a special assembly or just something that happened in gym class, and I doubt any of us particularly understood what it meant, but we all knew who Magic Johnson was, we knew AIDS was dangerous, and we knew that it was A Big Deal.

Ibrahim, New York City, N.Y.; Student; Diagnosed in 2009

Magic pushed the understanding of HIV in a way that no one else was capable of. This is because of who he is and what he was. His legacy as a symbol of hope reached the Middle East. I am sure his decision to disclose his HIV status was not easy by any means -- after all, he is a human being with emotions and feelings. The great thing about his decision is that he didn't try to market this issue. He is often referenced when refuting the myth of HIV equaling death, which makes Magic equal life.

Richard Cordova III, Chicago, Ill.; Project Manager for TPAN; Diagnosed in 2002

Twenty years have passed since Magic Johnson revealed his HIV-positive status to the world. The medications have come so far since that day, but have we? Is the average person living with HIV ready to share that news with the world? With friends? With family? I don't think so. In my experience, as limited as it may be, I have found that people are ashamed of their status, and don't feel comfortable enough to tell others. Bravo to Magic Johnson for doing something 20 years ago that most of us aren't even willing to do today. What will the next 20 years bring? That's up to you and me.

Sherri Beachfront Lewis, Los Angeles, Calif.; Activist, Writer, Humanitarian and Entertainer; Diagnosed in 1987

In 1991, Magic Johnson held a press conference telling the world that he tested HIV positive. I was already diagnosed HIV positive in 1987 and given five years to live even though I was healthy. I was married with a 16-year-old stepson, Blue. We were a basketball family since Blue was 6 feet 6 inches tall! Blue knew that I was HIV positive for years; but having a basketball star -- a heterosexual man -- come out was an important message for him to see.

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It could be anyone, any color, rich or poor. It was non-discriminating. It wasn't gay. Having Magic Johnson come forward with his HIV status brought that information into our AIDS education message. It was a historical step for the AIDS conversation. Personally, it provided me with hope.

To this day, when presenting AIDS education, there isn't a classroom where a student doesn't bring up his name. "Doesn't Magic Johnson have AIDS?" "Isn't he cured?" -- based on a misstatement that he made about his HIV status since he was successfully on treatment and living healthy. He later would correct that statement. I remember the gossip, that Magic was really gay. The stigma was strong. People just couldn't accept that this was a disease for anyone and everyone. The thinking that HIV was relegated to a certain group of people fed the denial and opened up another disastrous chapter in the AIDS epidemic: women getting infected and the birth of pediatric AIDS.

Khafre Abif, Augusta, Ga.; Activist, Writer and Librarian; Diagnosed in 1991

I remember the day Earvin "Magic" Johnson announced that he had been infected with HIV. I was sitting in the student union TV room on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh. I stood there with a room full of students, listening to his every word. By the time he finished his statement, I was in tears. Other students were in shock, but I had already received the same diagnosis. But I was no "Magic." I couldn't understand my emotions at that moment. Looking back, I know that the tears were for me -- because I had yet to stand and say, "I AM HIV POSITIVE."