Retired NBA superstar Magic Johnson wants the world to know he is the exception and not the rule when it comes to his HIV-positive status. He called it a blessing and a curse. “It’s a blessing because I came out as HIV-positive,” said Johnson. “But it’s a curse because now people think, if I get [HIV], I can be like magic and live a long time.”
Johnson became the face of the campaign to raise HIV awareness after he announced that he was HIV-positive in 1991. Over 20 years later, Johnson may still be the most famous HIV-positive celebrity in the world. Today, he leads an active and healthy life, thanks to a daily regimen of three medications and his wife’s care. “The medicine has done its part, and Cookie has done her part in staying on top of me and making sure I take my meds,” said Johnson. He stressed that his good health is due to the fact that he got tested for HIV when he did. “Early detection saved my life,” he said. For Johnson, detecting the virus early and managing it with medicine have been key in preventing AIDS symptoms and stopping it from progressing into AIDS.
Johnson joined media personality LaLa Anthony, Dr. Rachael Ross, Demetria Lucas and Pastor Toure Roberts at the Apollo Theater in Harlem to raise HIV awareness in the black community as World AIDS Day (Dec. 1) approaches. African-Americans are disproportionately affected by HIV in the U.S. According to the CDC, 44 percent of people living with HIV infection in 2009 were black, and blacks also made up 44% of new infections in 2009. “We’re in denial in our community,” said Johnson. “The numbers are staying around 50 percent. The numbers at historically black colleges and universities are going through the roof.”
The panelists discussed their goal to destigmatize HIV and testing and talked about how an at-home test like OraQuick, one of the event’s sponsors, can change the course of the future of the infection. “People are either not getting tested, or they get tested and they don’t get the results because they’re afraid to see them,” said Johnson. He added that some people drive as far as hours away to avoid seeing people they know at a clinic. “Find out at home instead of driving or walking,” he said.
The panel agreed that one of the biggest problems in educating the African-American community on HIV is the macho attitude prevalent among young black men. “Men think think nothing can happen to us,” said Johnson. “We were raised that way.” He pointed out that the audience was mainly made up of women. “We need to make this an all man room and talk man-to-man.” Lucas added that women should do their part in educating men as well. “We need to empower women,” she said. “Put the guy in a position where we say, ‘We cannot have sex until you get tested.’”
Ross said the biggest problem facing the community is a lack of education and denial. “The truth is, if you’ve had sex with someone, you are at risk,” she said. Lucas added, “So many people say it won’t happen to me, especially young people.”
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Anthony said a common misconception she encounters when speaking out on HIV/AIDS is that it’s a “gay disease” and people who are heterosexual believe they’ll never contract HIV.
The panel agreed that black leaders in all industries and anyone who wields an influence over black youths need to do their part in educating the masses, especially those who are the least educated and most vulnerable to negative influences. “I know what it’s like to want to feel accepted and want to feel loved,” said Anthony. “I can relate to these women.” Johnson reminded the audience: “Poor doesn’t mean poor dreams,” he said, as the audience broke into applause.
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