At the time, fear and apathy gripped mainstream society, with many straight people either blaming homosexuals for this so-called “gay plague” or not really caring too much about it in the first place.
Johnson was a game-changer: A heterosexual celebrity with the virus. And a sports legend, to boot—one beloved by straight-male sports fans. With Johnson’s disclosure, Mr. and Mrs. Middle America were able to put a familiar face on the disease and feel both a sense of urgency and compassion.
It didn’t hurt that Johnson appeared—and continues to appear more than twenty years later—to be the picture of health.
On March 11, ESPN will air The Announcement, which explores Magic Johnson’s journey from NBA superstar to AIDS poster boy to accomplished entrepreneur and philanthropist.
Johnson has done much to raise AIDS awareness, especially in particularly vulnerable African-American community, but it is a little sad that it took an “acceptable” victim for America to start paying attention to an epidemic that was already a decade old.
Watching snippets of the film, its hard not to by baffled by archival news reports that acted like AIDS had just arrived on the scene or that Johnson’s serocoversion was somehow a greater tragedy than anyone else’s. (Maybe it’s because we’re not big sports fans.)
And we worry many look at Johnson and continue believe having HIV is an easily manageable condition, when in reality most people with the virus aren’t millionaires with access to the best drugs available and the adoration of millions to bolster their spirits. (South Park once did a brilliantly twisted parody in which Johnson revealed there was a cure for AIDS—ground-up $100 bills.)
We’re not judging Johnson—far from it. But when we think of the horrors endured by early gay victims—discriminated against even as they lay on their deathbeds—we can’t help but question the almost saintlike status so much of straight America placed on him.
We’re excited to watch The Appointment. We just hope it puts Johnson’s struggle in context of those victims of the epidemic not fortunate enough to be straight, rich or famous.
Photos: CNN, ESPN