He’s The Subject Of A New ESPN Doc, But Is Magic Johnson Truly A Hero Of The AIDS Crisis?

For those of us old enough to remember, it’s hard to imagine it was almost 21 years ago that Earvin “Magic” Johnson announced he had the HIV virus.

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

Get Queerty Daily

Subscribe to Queerty for a daily dose of #entertainment #aids #espn stories and more


  • The Real Mike in Asheville

    I don’t know how you are Dan, I am 52, and most likely became infected in 1980 [in ’86 the first antibody test arrived, and I was poz, in 1987 the first T-cell tests, and my count was just under 600 when typical is 1500-1800].

    I ask because you make a few statements that are lacking in context:

    Indeed, we gays were blamed and discrimination was blatant. However, the loudest voices of blame and discrimination, aside from the lunatic fringe, was at the hands of fellow gays. Boyfriends and roommates who were found out about being positive, would return home to find all their possessions dumped on the curb; at SF Pride, the first patient groups, a handful at first, were booed and turned away from support; the gay community shunned its very own w/o compassion, w/o food, w/o housing. It was a dismal response to our fellow man.

    While the Magic Johnson news was very big news, much of that is because Magic didn’t die and has continued his advocacy work for HIV/AIDS particularly dedicated to minority and inner-city community. But, there were other big celebrities too, their stories, though, truncated because they died: Rock Hudson being the biggest, Liberace too who in the day was pretty damn big, and Warhol, etc.

    And while straight minority Johnson faced his reality and took action, others of the gay community jammed their heads in the sand: Calvin Klein, for example, jumped head-over-heels back into straight-world denial remarrying (Kelly this time) right when AIDS was at its deadliest.

    Of course Johnson is not the only world-class athlete who has endured HIV/AIDS — 4 years BEFORE Johnson’s announcement, Greg Louganis hit his head, causing a bloodied concussion, at the 1988 Olympics, raising HIV/AIDS awareness on an international basis on perhaps the largest international stage. And Greg, like me and like Johnson, and the 10% or so of others infected decades ago, are still around doing our part of the fight.

    Johnson could have chosen to run and hide; he did the opposite and is worthy of high praise [you rightly say you are not judging him in the negative] but what Magic has done is much more than the negative, he has made a very positive influence, so desperately needed in minority communities.

  • The Real Mike in Asheville

    Oh, I’m sure there will some here who will point out some of Johnson’s semi-homophobic comments about all this. And indeed, that cannot and should not be erased from what happened. I will just add though, like so many other Americans, Johnson has evolved, and perhaps, only so because of his condition. Nonetheless, that does not discount the accomplishments of bringing awareness to minorities.

  • CBRad

    @The Real Mike in Asheville: Warhol didn’t die of AIDS, though. (Just a small point. Otherwise I agree with all of your post).

  • MEJ

    I remember back in the day, the Toronto based gay newspaper, Xtra, ran an advert in an issue that pictured a basketball, and the headline, “We have our own heros we don’t need Magic Johnson” or something to that effect. There was a hailstorm of angry letters condemning Xtra, and of course playing the race card, and Xtra ran a retraction, and apology. I didn’t see anything wrong with the ad myself.

  • MikeE

    by the way, an editorial comment Dan: HIV.. NOT “HIV Virus”.

    HIV is an acronym that actually includes the word “Virus”. What do you think the “V” stands for?

    You’d think that more than 20 years later at LEAST the gay media would know how to call one of the most significant events in gay culture.

  • Jim Hlavac

    For a “gay disease” AIDS has always needed heterosexual poster children for action. It was Hemophiliac Ryan White who got a lousy blood transfusion which created the Ryan White Act. It’s not named after any gay guy, that’s for sure.

    As for “discrimination in their deathbeds,” well, we were so discriminated against, felons even, and more horrendous stuff said about us in the popular press, and even the NY Times would not use the word “gay” but only “homosexual” and sometimes still “queer” too, in the early 1980s, it made no difference if we were healthy or not, the discrimination continued. On the other hand, since I was at one of the epicenters: NYC in 1980-1985, well, I got to hand it to St. Vincent’s Hospital, a Catholic institution in Greenwich Village, for they embraced the problem, and gave succor such as it could be given to people who were dying by the hundreds of no known cause. There seemed, in the beginning, nothing to do but make people as comfortable as possible while waiting for them to die. In visiting friends at St. Vincent’s no doctor, nurse, nun or priest ever had a negative word, but were filled with compassion far beyond that ever given to any gay man alive before or since.

    It’s also true, despite “Reagan never mention AIDS until 1987” that it was called GRID at first, “Gay Related Immune Disease,” and wasn’t really popularly known as AIDS until 1984 or 1985, that the government began pouring tens of millions of dollars into research almost immediately. Which is why HIV was found in 1985, and AIDS became the standard term, especially after it was determined that gayness had nothing to do with it.

    Meanwhile, with today’s drugs it is indeed a very manageable disease, so much so that so long as one takes one’s pills, and often it’s just one or two, one might live rather normally. What seems to still happen, is that some HIV folks still go about their partying ways, drink to excess, snort coke, and fail to keep taking the drugs, etc etc, and they are the ones who suffer and still die. Many others simply live lives and one would never suspect they have HIV whatsoever. Indeed, so manageable is it that one can’t even get Soc. Sec. Disability for it.

    And everyone has access to “the best drugs available” — for there are only certain drugs that stem the tide, though not cure, and they are available to anyone regardless of wealth on hand, through a sometimes bewildering number of programs and insurance. What matters somewhat is whether you have a resistant type, from either not following the drug regimen, or being constantly reinfected, as to which pills and how many you need to take. And still, as with so many other things, there’s always the genetic factor. Some people just don’t respond as well to “the best drugs” as others, for others there are some side affects. It’s person by person, but the “best drugs” are there for all regardless of whether one is covered by Medicaid, Medicare, Ryan White, private insurance, or cash from one’s own pocket. I know a good dozen people who are HIV+ since the early 1980s, and none have had the resources Magic had, but they get the same treatment as he does.

  • wc1

    @The Real Mike in Asheville:

    Cant really be said better then this.

    Magic put a straight face on the disease at a time when everyone thought it was a gay plague.

  • Dan Avery

    You’ve all made valid points—but I guess I feel a little bit of that sense of disappointment that we needed a straight face to make people care. Is ESPN doing a documentary on the anniversary of Greg Louganis’ announcement?

  • Shannon1981

    I really resent the fact that it took someone beloved, someone straight to tell a story that was originally gay, and to make people give a damn.

    While I am glad for Johnson giving the face we needed to take the blame off the gay community for this (as if anyone should be blamed in the first place)…but I resent the fact that it took Magic Johnson to make people care. That’s not to say I resent him,just the fact that it took his coming up positive to make straight America care.

  • Aaron

    @ Jim it was the French that discovered HIV at first. The American team stole the French’s reseach and tried to pass it off as their own research.

    I highly reccomend reading “And the band played on” its an amazing history of the early days of AIDS.

  • Mike

    @CBRad: Yep, I sure blew that one. I’ll plead that name confusion is a noted affliction of dyslexia, and boy do I have that big time. In my head I was picturing Keith Haring, a custom tattoo of his dancing men bands my left arm; so I wrote Haring in my head while typing Warhol on the keyboard. Thanks for the correction.

  • Mike

    @Mike: Oops, on hubby’s computer and forgot to change to my log-in “Mike in Asheville” — two Mikes, one IP.

  • mylife

    I remember when Magic announced he was HIV positive, and to this very day, I do not believe he contracted it from a woman. There simply aren’t that many straight men out there who have come out and said they got it from a woman. I don’t believe that Magic is one of the few exceptions. His announcement was a smart publicity move that garnered support for the poor straight guy that caught the awful disease.

  • Drew

    MyLife-Try telling that to the large number of hetero men worldwide even in Europe and the United States who have contacted HIV from women. Yes hetero men can easily get infected with HIV by women.

  • Cam

    @Dan Avery: said…

    “You’ve all made valid points—but I guess I feel a little bit of that sense of disappointment that we needed a straight face to make people care. Is ESPN doing a documentary on the anniversary of Greg Louganis’ announcement?”

    Two issues,

    1. You are viewing history through the lens of today.
    2. Magic Johnson was still a hugely popular sports figure, making millions and seen by millions on TV every week.

    Greg Lougainous didn’t announce he had AIDS while he was in the Olympics and in all the papers.

  • Tika Masala

    Don’t forget about the Amazing Arthur Ashe, the hemophiliac tennis star.

  • David

    Issac Asimov also contracted HIV and died of AIDS while having a blood transfusion for heart surgery and he’s hetero.

  • shannon

    YES HE IS..

  • CBRad

    @Mike: I figured you just meant Haring or someone else. Everybody does that. The only reason I pointed it out was for guys who…aren’t up on Warhol and stuff.

  • mylife

    @Drew: Where are these heterosexual men that you speak of? And, I’m referring to the ones in the USA. They would be EXCELLENT poster children for the dangers of HIV. Nothing would scare America more than campaigns from the CDC focusing on how many heterosexual men are contracting the disease from women. We hear about gays, and black men on the DL, and drug users, and women getting it. Where are these straight men? Where? Even if only TWO of them came out with their stories, it would be plastered on all the major news stations and they would make all the talk show rounds. So, WHERE ARE THESE HETEROSEXUAL MEN? WHERE?

  • silhouette

    @mylife – Max Robinson was one. He was straight and he got AIDS and died.

  • zenileon

    @mylife: I don’t believe that Mr. Magic Johnson is taking the prescribed HIV mediation – he would be long dead by now if he had been. Wake up people….Please!!

Comments are closed.