Donald Sterling, the racist cretin who owns the Los Angeles Clippers, raised a series of interesting questions about Magic Johnson on Monday, during an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “What has he done, can you tell me? Big Magic Johnson, what has he done?” Sterling asked dismissively. “What does he do for the black people?” Sterling added that Johnson should be “ashamed of himself” for having H.I.V., and suggested that he was a terrible role model for children.
As it happens, I started working as a reporter for the New York Times in November of 1991, a few days before Johnson announced that he had been infected with H.I.V. In the nineteen-eighties, I spent several years covering the AIDS epidemic for the Washington Post, and my first stories at the Times were about Johnson’s announcement and the seismic impact it had for African-American teen-agers across the country.
Many people have devoted their lives to ending the AIDS epidemic. Some of them became famous. Ryan White was the sweet, sad teen-ager who was expelled from his high school in Kokomo, Indiana, because he had been infected, through a tainted blood transfusion. White died in 1990, and the first essential American AIDS legislation is named after him, because he was an “innocent” young white boy—congressional leaders refused even to consider naming the law after a gay man or a minority. Larry Kramer started the two most important American AIDS organizations: Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACTUP, and screamed so loudly and at so many people about the potential of an epidemic that some of them actually began to listen. And C. Everett Koop, as surgeon general, transformed himself from a right-wing anti-abortion crusader into the most compelling advocate for AIDS education in the United States.
These people—and many others—had a remarkable impact on the course of the AIDS epidemic. But none of them possessed Magic Johnson’s ability to connect with the people who needed help the most: young minorities. There was no better way to demonstrate that H.I.V. is a virus that can attack anyone than for one of America’s most electrifying athletes to acknowledge that he was infected. Johnson’s announcement came at a critical point in the epidemic. In 1991, many Americans remained convinced that AIDS was a disease that affected gay, white men—people like Rock Hudson—but almost nobody else. As Ronald Johnson, who was then executive director of the New York-based Minority Task Force on AIDS, told me at the time, “This is a tragedy beyond measure for Mr. Johnson and his family. But for the first time this could convince people in our community that when it comes to this disease we are all very much at risk.”
He was right. Within a month of Magic Johnson’s announcement, the number of people seeking H.I.V. tests in New York City rose by sixty per cent. A similarly sharp increase was noted in many cities throughout the nation. (New York’s health department even had trouble marshalling the resources needed to accommodate the demand. By December, 1991, it took as many as seven weeks to get an appointment for a test at the city’s counselling and testing centers. Before Johnson’s announcement, most centers provided tests without an appointment.)
It would have been enough for Magic, a black, recently-married heterosexual athlete, to let the world know that he had been infected. Simply by living, he did much more, proving that an H.I.V. infection was no longer an automatic death sentence. It is not possible to overstate how badly that message was needed in the minority communities that had been affected most severely, yet were, as always, least well served by the public-health system.
Johnson began to speak out and he has never retreated. In 1992, he returned to play in the All-Star Game, not without some opposition, and later that year played on America’s “Dream Team” in the Barcelona Olympics. Moreover, like Koop, Johnson turned out to have deep wells of integrity. President George Bush appointed him to the National Commission on AIDS. But, as soon as Johnson realized that the commission did nothing, he resigned, contending in a highly publicized letter to the President that he had “dropped the ball.” He wrote, “I cannot in good conscience continue to serve on a commission whose important work is so utterly ignored by your Administration.”
Johnson’s businesses have thrived, and through his foundation he has donated millions of dollars, and thousands of hours of his time, to charities—including those in south Los Angeles. In 2008, Johnson worked tirelessly in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat Proposition 8 in California, saying at the time that the same-sex marriage ban was “unfair and wrong…’ and that it … “singles out one group of Californians to be treated differently—including members of our family, our friends, and our coworkers.” Last year, his son Earvin Johnson III, known as E.J., announced that he was gay. Johnson and his wife Cookie (whom he married in 1991) offered public words of support (and did so in an interview on CNN and also from the biggest platform they could find: Oprah Winfrey’s couch). “I go to church,” Johnson said at the time. “I’m a Christian, but the reality is, my son is gay…. And I tell my pastors that, I tell other pastors that.… I love my son, nothing is going to change that. I don’t care if you don’t agree. If you don’t want to deal with me, or you don’t like me, that’s on you.”
Source: The New Yorker | MICHAEL SPECTER