Dear Magic Johnson, thanks for saving my life

In February, 2009, Cookie Johnson, wife of Earvin “Magic” Johnson, was among the honorees at Heroes in the Struggle, an event held by the Black AIDS Institute (and for which I was a contributing writer). That night, I met Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, briefly shared my HIV story and personally thanked them for helping to save my life. Below is another expression of my gratitude.

AIDS happy

Dear Magic and Cookie Johnson,

Thank you for giving me a life. I just had my 48th birthday in January 2010, which is nothing short of a miracle. I’m 48 years old! How old am I? I’m 48, baby! I’ve lived 48 whole years!

It may not sound like much, but to me, it’s the greatest, most spectacular, off-the-hook dream come true (I never dreamed would come true). I have a life! I’m alive. I’m alive. I’m alive.

Back in the 80s, I wrote on a notebook in big shaky scribbles: I wanna live. I wanna live. I wanna live. In part, because of the efforts of you, Magic and Cookie Johnson, my dream has come true.

You see, in 1985, I was a 23-year-old, young black man infected with the AIDS virus. I hadn’t been tested yet, but I knew. I found out in July, the night Rock Hudson shocked the world with his televised AIDS announcement.

That night, which I call AIDS Night in America, the doctors on TV informed me that the night sweats I was having were due to the HIV virus that had infected me weeks earlier during a lone sexual encounter which put me at risk.

I was a UCLA graduate all of one month. I had been a cheerleader at both USC (1980-82) and UCLA (1983-85), but I had absolutely no one to turn to with my new-found knowledge: that I was just like Rock.

Life expectancy for anyone with HIV/AIDS was 12-18 months. At the age of 23, I prepared to die. I didn’t tell another soul for three years.

“When the world broke out in tears over you and your HIV, it hurt.”

Look at me now! I’m 48 years old! I’m an old man! I got gray hairs! I’m balding! I have to concern myself with my cholesterol, my blood pressure, my colon, just like any other 48-year-old man! I’m getting old! I have a life. I have a dog, Boomer, named after my hometown Indiana Pacers’ mascot. I have dreams, I have a life.

Magic and Cookie Johnson talking HIV/AIDS with Oprah.
Magic and Cookie Johnson talking HIV/AIDS with Oprah.

For years, I didn’t have a life, just a quiet, slow, sometimes-invisible-to-the-eye death. The life expectancy expanded from 12-18 months, but only as people like myself continued to survive beyond 12-18 months.

Now people with AIDS can live a couple years…

Now people with AIDS can live five years, ten years…

Now I’m convinced: this people would not have made it without some heroes working in the wings, even when I didn’t know it. Even when I didn’t believe it. Now I believe.

Now people with AIDS can live an indefinite amount of time and they don’t even have to die of AIDS!

Talk about an amazing race.

Magic Johnson during his HIV announcement in 1991.
Magic Johnson during his HIV announcement in 1991.

Anyone alive then can remember the day Magic Johnson shocked the world by saying: I, too, have the HIV virus, and I’m going to do what I can to come out victorious against HIV/AIDS.

“I grew up in a sports family where black men took their anger out on women and boys who wanted to be cheerleaders.”

Mr. Johnson, Sir: you did it. You won. You beat AIDS. No matter what else happens in your life, you beat AIDS. You showed the world the way, the world followed.

Yep, I admit it. In 1991, when the world broke out in tears over you and your HIV, it hurt. Ten months earlier, my co-workers (who knew I was HIV-positive) had refused to eat birthday cake after I blew out the candles. After your announcement, those same co-workers couldn’t call me fast enough, simply because I was Just Like Magic.

When people who knew of my status and had stopped calling me suddenly called me just because a famous person admitted to having HIV, and those people’s questions were “what do you think about Magic?” instead of “how are you doing, Randy?” … it hurt.

When I, who had been persecuted for years for being a male cheerleader, saw the sports world adoring Magic because he’s just like me, but not adoring me, even though I’m just like Magic … it hurt.

Most of all, when I saw how much it hurt my mom to see a famous black man with HIV receive all that love while her non-famous son with HIV received little love and I heard a pain in her voice that said: what about my baby? … it really hurt.

It was the same kind of hurt I felt as a child when my father hated on her. It hurts anytime your mother’s hurting.

That’s another thing. I grew up in a sports family where black men took their anger out on women and boys who wanted to be cheerleaders. My older sister taught me cheerleading when I was seven. I’ve been a cheerleader all my life.

That made me a great cheerleader, but it also got me beat up in my own home. Growing up, I didn’t have any good black role models. Most of my life, to me, black men = getting beat up, mentally or physically, especially black men in sports.

All of that made it hard to see you as an ally in the struggle with HIV/AIDS, even as I admired you as an athlete and businessman. But all that has changed now. Now I see clearly. Now I understand how much you’ve meant to the world’s dealing with HIV.

Magic Johnson, Thank you for my life.

Your decision to go public in 1991 helped save my life. You single-handedly re-shook up the world, which had grown complacent and ambivalent towards AIDS since Rock Hudson’s 1985 announcement.

In hindsight, Rock’s announcement was the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Magic’s announcement was the 9/11 to both the sexual revolution and the scientific community.

Without that wake-up call, there would have been no re-mobilization, re-concentration, re-dedication to making AIDS a global priority.

You helped ignite the flame that forged the first breakthrough drugs, the protease inhibitors in the late 1990s. Your honesty and advocacy through efforts like the Magic Johnson Foundation created the surge that allowed science to get a grip on this “strange, new fatal disease.”

Your announcement was a stimulus to global effort, as has been your simply walking this earth, being who you are, a sports commentator, a businessman, a former athlete–all the while owning your HIV status with a smile. You, Magic Johnson, turned out to be the world’s greatest cheerleader for conquering AIDS.

All of which is why I’m here, a balding, graying 48-year-old black man who has been living with HIV/AIDS for 25 years and counting, having now lived over Half My Life with AIDS.

Being among the living today, I often imagine myself reassuring the terrified boy I was in 1985: It’s going to be all right, young man, humankind will do great things to keep you and others like you alive. You’ll live to see great things in the next century. Forces beyond your wildest imagination are at work to make your dreams come true. Keep dreaming and keep dreaming big.

That boy is alive, in part, because of the efforts of you and your wife. Thank you, Magic and Cookie Johnson, for helping to save my life.