The New Faces of HIV/AIDS
Now, 15 years after that shattering press conference, Magic is living a healthy lifestyle and feeling great. While rumors have spread that he either has been cured of the disease or has access to special medications due to his celebrity, Magic says these rumors are false. His good health is a direct result of his lifestyle, positive attitude and commitment to taking his medication.
Magic says he needs to stay healthy just to keep up with his own life. He works to educate people about HIV and AIDS, oversees an ever-expanding empire of real estate holdings and businesses, and serves as vice president and co-owner of his former team, the L.A. Lakers.
But after a meeting with Elizabeth Glaser, who was dying from AIDS at the time, Magic had a different idea. "I talked to [Elizabeth] about two or three times and she said, 'The only thing I want you to do is to become the face of HIV and AIDS. You can really change things. You're going to live for a long time because there are a lot of great medicines coming down the pipeline, but I really want you to go public because people really need to know that HIV and AIDS are out here in a big way.'"
After playing on the historic Olympic "Dream Team" in 1992, Magic even tried to make an NBA comeback in 1995. But some other players in the league were upset, believing, incorrectly, that it was possible to contract HIV in the course of game play. "We were uneducated at that time," Magic says. "We had to educate everybody about the disease. You couldn't get it by playing basketball against me or high-fiving me or hugging me."
Spurred by Magic's announcement, the public, especially in minority communities, became educated about the realities of HIV and AIDS. In recent years, Magic says he's witnessed a turn. "When I first announced, everybody reacted. Now they're going back," Magic says. "In our community, we have so many issues in terms of black men in prison, and then also living a double life, on the down low. ... And then a lot of people who get HIV who are minorities feel they can't go to their families because of what their family's reaction is going to be."
To strengthen his immune system, Magic maintains a strenuous health regimen with a daily workout that includes an hour on an exercise bike followed by weight training. His diet consists of low-fat, low-sugar meals like skinless chicken, vegetables, fruits. He also takes three pills twice a day.
Magic says the early years of his treatment were tough as side effects from the medications wore him down. "In the beginning it was terrible—mood swings, going to the restroom a lot, and [my] stomach just upset," he says. "But I think my workout balances the medicine out."
To get over these rough times, Magic says it was necessary to maintain a positive attitude. "It plays, to me, just as much [of a role] as the medicine plays," he says.
Magic and Cookie initially didn't know how the diagnosis would affect their sex life. "We got a lot of information right away," Cookie says. "It changed a little bit, but you just have to make sure that you use your protection. And once you do that, it's very normal."
"We're still doing our thing," Magic adds. "You know, you've still got to live. Life does go on. That's what everybody doesn't understand. You're going to still live a normal life [with HIV and AIDS]."
Chelsea, a 24-year-old mother, says she found out she was HIV positive when she became pregnant with her son. Cherrell, Marvelyn and Regan say they contracted the disease from men they were dating seriously. Marvelyn was only 19 years old when she found out she was HIV positive.
Precious says she was infected by a man who may have had sex with other men, while Yvette, a 36-year-old mother of two, believes she contracted the disease 15 years ago through unprotected sex. Yvette lived with HIV for 12 years before she was diagnosed.
Many women think they're safe from infection, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, women represent a growing share of newly reported AIDS cases in America, rising from just 8 percent of cases in 1985 to 27 percent of cases in 2004.
"I was a junior in college, so I was very well educated, and I had been in a monogamous relationship for five years," Chelsea says. "I definitely didn't think I was at risk."
A majority of new infections among American women are the result of unprotected heterosexual sex. "I used condoms with people I was with, but I didn't use them consistently...and I probably didn't use them correctly," Yvette says.
Medical advances have simplified the treatment of many HIV/AIDS patients, but some say there has been little advancement in the way people treat HIV-positive men and women. "The stigma is the worst part," Regan says. "I couldn't even get care sometimes because I would go to get blood work at my local hospital ... the nurse would come in and say, 'I'm not going to take this woman's blood. She's HIV positive.'"
The public's perception of HIV-positive women also makes dating very difficult. Chelsea says she always tries to tell men that she has HIV on the first date. "When I told people, like guys, their reactions were, like, 'Oh, God, where's the closest exit? Let me get out of here as fast as I can,'" she says.
Marvelyn says some men still try to convince her to have unprotected sex, but she is adamant about using condoms. Infected people run the risk of reinfecting themselves with a different strain of HIV if they have unprotected sex. Because the virus mutates so rapidly, these new strains could be resistant to the medications they're currently taking.
"People need to get tested on a regular basis and take responsibility for their own status," she says. "Women need to know that this is a matter of protecting yourself. ... Buy condoms and insist that men wear them."
Chelsea hopes that sharing her story will help people open their minds and be less judgmental of those living with HIV.
Yvette nearly lost her life due to AIDS-related illnesses. She hopes that women will take her message to heart and start protecting themselves from the virus. "It can happen to anyone," she says. "HIV does not discriminate. It doesn't care what color you are, what nationality, religion. If you have unprotected sex one time, you can become infected."
There's not a simple explanation for why more women are becoming infected, but Dr. Smith says she can pinpoint three important causes. "The first is lack of perception of risk," she says. "The second is lack of power in relationships, and then the third is the role that substance use plays."
Many women in monogamous relationships don't think they are at risk, Dr. Smith says, but their partners could be putting them in danger without them knowing it. If your significant other is having sex with other men or women, abusing drugs or has been to prison, your chances of contracting HIV are greatly increased.
A woman who is dependent on a man, emotionally or financially, may not have the power to withhold sex or demand that the man wear a condom, Dr. Smith says. Condom use is critical to preventing the spread of HIV.
Dr. Smith says we can't ignore the role drugs play in the fight against AIDS. "Substance use plays a role as well. ... Not only intravenous drug use, but also importantly crack cocaine," she says. "When individuals are addicted to crack cocaine ... they do very desperate things in order to get access to the drugs."
"There is a culture of promiscuity that says we must celebrate big pimping, booty popping and bootylicousness," he says. "That is promoted and accepted, and it demeans black women in ways that are absolutely absurd. ... The black community and America in general has to confront this crisis because we are now reducing a generation of young women to a biological underclass."
Reverend Rivers says that until it's no longer accepted for men to demean women and encourage promiscuity, the infection will continue to spread. "Unprotected sex is now functioning as an instrument of mass destruction," he says.
The Magic Johnson Foundation has teamed with Abbott Laboratories for a new movement on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2006. "It's called 'I Stand with Magic.' It's going to be great because what we're going to do is do testing," Magic says. "I bought a lot of Laker tickets, so we have incentive for people to get tested. Our problem has been people have been tested, but they don't go back for the results. We want to make sure they go back."
The other focus of "I Stand with Magic" is spreading the truth about HIV and AIDS. "In the black community, what really hurts us—as well as the Latino community—is misinformation. They really don't know. There's a lot of crazy rumors that go on in our community."