30 years after Magic Johnson's HIV announcement, we still have work to do

Magic's announcement shook the foundations of sports and society. Progress was made, but more is needed.

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 07: Los Angeles Lakers Earvin Magic Johnson announces his retiremen...
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Culture

In the late afternoon of November 7, 1991, Magic Johnson stood in front of reporters, as millions more tuned in on TV. The NBA season had just gotten underway, and the league’s teams and fan bases were filled with optimism and dreams of championships. But future NBA hall-of-famer and Los Angeles Lakers legend Johnson had an announcement that would mark a pivotal moment not only in the history of the sport, but also the entire world.

Two weeks prior, Johnson had undergone a routine physical for a life insurance policy that revealed an abnormal test result. Further tests confirmed the 32-year-old was HIV-positive.

During his November 7 press conference, Johnson told the world about his diagnosis and announced he would be retiring from the NBA, effective immediately. While it was jarring to watch a five-time NBA champion abruptly announce his retirement, it’s what Johnson didn’t say that day that would have lasting impacts on society and perceptions of HIV and AIDS.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, the narrative around HIV and AIDS was that it was a disease impacting almost exclusively gay, white men who had contracted the virus through unprotected sex with other men — a narrative 80% of Americans believed. And while it was true that AIDS disproportionately affected gay and bisexual men during the 80s, polls and opinions like this nonetheless perpetuated a lack of understanding about the disease and who could contract it, resulting in a sharp rise in hate crimes against the gay community.

But the nightly news narrative that the disease almost exclusively impacted gay, white men was misguided. For Black people, the AIDS epidemic was even more startling: By 1986, CDC data showed that African-Americans had an overall AIDS rate three times higher than white people, and African-Americans accounted for 51% of all AIDS cases among women. Along with the health ramifications of a rapidly spreading disease, gay Black men also had to work through early exclusion from AIDS organizations and ongoing stigma within their communities that resulted in limited understanding of the disease and willingness to take measures to prevent transmission, as the African American Intellectual History Society noted.

A 1981 report about pneumocystis pneumonia, a then mysterious illness that would become a definitive diagnosis for HIV/AIDS, highlighted five cases of the illness in men. But the lead author of the report, Dr. Michael Gottlieb, omitted the sixth and seventh cases, which were both detected in Black men, one gay Black American and one heterosexual Haitian.

In journalist Linda Villarosa’s 2017 New York Times cover story titled “America’s Hidden H.I.V. Epidemic,” Gottlieb said that he discovered the case after the report was finalized, and that at the time, he didn’t think it would have mattered. But Villarosa explains the harm of leaving Black men out of such important reports on the disease. “Including gay black men in the literature and understanding of the origins of the disease and its treatment could have meant earlier outreach, more of a voice and a standing in H.I.V./AIDS advocacy organizations, and access to the cultural and financial power of the L.G.B.T. community that would rise up to demand government action.”

On November 7, 1991, Johnson — with his wife Cookie by his side — not only shattered the stereotype of what a person with HIV looked like, but he also became that much-needed voice for the Black community and for all HIV/AIDS patients. His announcement hit the world with supersonic force: HIV/AIDS wasn’t a gay, white man’s disease, but rather an epidemic that saw no race or sexuality barriers. Johnson, one of the most popular figures in Hollywood, was a straight Black man in the prime of his career.

Ten years earlier, he had signed one of sports’ first mega contracts, a 25-year $25 million deal with the Lakers. At the time of his announcement, Johnson was already one of the most accomplished NBA players of all-time, with five championship rings and three MVP titles to his credit. As Johnson stated in his 1992 autobiography, My Life, he had often encountered 40 to 50 women at a time waiting outside the Lakers’ team hotels in the 80s ready to please him and his teammates — and he took advantage of these opportunities. “'What they wanted was the conquest,'' he wrote. ''I had my own fantasies, too. Like many men, I had always wondered what it was like to be with more than one woman at a time. There were times when I was able to arrange such an evening with two women, or more. I know how I got the HIV virus. That’s clear.”

During his press conference, Johnson told reporters his intention to become a spokesperson and educate people — particularly young people — about HIV, and “that safe sex is the way to go.”

“I think we sometimes think only gay people can get it; it’s not going to happen to me,” he said. “And here I am saying that it can happen to anybody, even me, Magic Johnson.”

A mere three months after his announcement, Johnson returned to the court as fans voted him in as a starter for the 1992 NBA All-Star Game. But while fans showered the Lakers all-star with love in the months following his announcement, certain NBA players did little to dampen the fear around HIV and AIDS. Utah Jazz all-star Karl Malone, among others, reportedly expressed concern about being on the same court as Johnson; while on the opposite side of the fence, Dennis Rodman willingly defended Johnson on the court. “Dennis Rodman really took it upon himself to show he’s going to body me, he’s going to play hard,’’ Johnson told The Boston Globe in 2012.

Despite the seriousness of his diagnosis, Johnson is alive and well today, thriving as a businessman and entrepreneur. Through initial uses of experimental drug cocktails in the mid-90s and a steady regimen of HIV medications, Johnson has been able to keep full blown AIDS at bay. In his 2021 stand-up special The Closer, Dave Chappelle even joked about Magic Johnson’s winning battle with HIV in relation to his own symptom-free battle with coronavirus, saying, “I am the Magic Johnson of coronavirus.”

But that doesn’t mean the stigma around HIV/AIDS and the narrative that it’s a gay man’s disease has been completely obliterated in 2021. And despite evidence to the contrary — Johnson being one example — HIV is still seen by some as a death sentence. To understand how these troubling stereotypes continue to be perpetuated, just look at DaBaby’s comments at this year’s Rolling Loud music festival.

"If you didn't show up today with HIV, AIDS, or any of them deadly sexually transmitted diseases that'll make you die in two to three weeks, then put your cellphone lighter up," he told attendees. "Ladies, if your p---- smell like water, put your cellphone lighter up. Fellas, if you ain’t sucking d--- in the parking lot, put your cellphone lighter up."

From the notion that people who had contracted HIV would die within two-to-three weeks, to comments disparaging homosexual attendees, DaBaby’s comments to an audience made up primarily of young adults, were troubling because it contributed to setting up a new generation of people to hold close many of the same stereotypes around HIV/AIDS that characterized the 80s and 90s. It also contributes to a continued false sense of security for heterosexual males that HIV/AIDS is not a disease for them. This age group doesn’t necessarily know Johnson as a pioneer in the fight against HIV/AIDS. They know him as the entrepreneur who owns movie theaters and Starbucks locations.

The fallout from DaBaby’s comments was quick and widespread, which wasn’t helped by the rapper doubling down on his remarks the following day. "My gay fans, they take care of themselves. They ain't no nasty gay niggas,” he wrote on Instagram. “See what I'm saying? They ain't no junkies in the street. The hell you talking about, niggas? Then I said if you ain't sucking dick in the parking lot, put your cellphone lighter up. You know what my gay fans did? Put that motherfucking light up, nigga, 'cause my gay fans ain't going for that. They got class. They ain't sucking no dick in no parking lot."

DaBaby’s comments were quickly condemned by everyone from Questlove to Dua Lipa, the latter of whom had previously enlisted DaBaby as a guest on her hit single “Levitating.” But perhaps the most important response came from Elton John, one of the most tireless advocates in the fight against HIV/AIDS. John summed up nicely why such comments do nothing but set back much of the work Johnson started years earlier. "We've been shocked to read about the HIV misinformation and homophobic statements made at a recent DaBaby show," he tweeted on July 28. "This fuels stigma and discrimination and is the opposite of what our world needs to fight the AIDS epidemic."

DaBaby isn’t the only one to perpetuate lies around the disease. Amid the uproar and debate of Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving’s decision to not get vaccinated against COVID-19, Republican congressional candidate Lavern Spicer tweeted that “they let Magic Johnson play basketball with FULL-BLOWN HIV but won’t let Kyrie Irving play because he won’t get a COVID shot.” She and other right-wingers used Johnson’s diagnosis as a political tool 30 years later to fuel anti-vaxx efforts. But there are many troubling aspects with Spicer’s comments. Not only does her tweet disregard the fact that Johnson voluntarily removed himself from the league upon his initial diagnosis; but it also misrepresents what HIV is and how it’s transmitted. The virus doesn’t spread through the air like COVID does, and there is no such thing as “full blown HIV.” HIV is the virus that can cause full-blown AIDS.

It’s misinformation and stigmatic comments like these that underscore just how crucial Johnson’s announcement and advocacy work are, as well as the value of continued representation. Earlier this year, Pose star Billy Porter announced his HIV-positive status, saying he has been living with the diagnosis since 2007. As Porter told The Hollywood Reporter about his announcement, “I’m sure this is going to be the first thing everybody says, ‘HIV-positive blah, blah, blah.’ OK. Whatever. It’s not the only thing I am. I’m so much more than that diagnosis. And if you don’t want to work with me because of my status, you’re not worthy of me.”

It’s clear that some 40 years on, in the fight against HIV/AIDS, there is still work to be done to educate people about the disease, remove dated stigmas from the everyday lexicon, and provide proper access to support — especially for minority communities. It comes down to sex education, health, and acceptance. And there is nothing magic about it.