It’s 1992. Magic Johnson, recently retired from the NBA, announces that he is HIV-positive. America is just learning about AIDS, and is frightened. The gay communities are plagued with disease and seeing their community devastated by HIV related illnesses and death. It isn’t cool to come out-certainly not for sports figures, celebrities, or anyone else fearing discrimination from the public.
I remember when Magic made his historic announcement. I was sitting at my grandparent’s kitchen table in Sherman Oaks, California, reading the paper to my grandfather, and noticing that, despite the generation gap, he didn’t flinch when the news came out. I remember admiring Magic’s amazing courage to disclose his ‘secret’, and wondering how that would impact our culture. At this time, HIV was a ‘gay disease’, and I remember thinking Magic had amazing courage to put himself in the same category.
I was a young teacher at the time, and had recently shared a book about Ryan White with my middle school class. Ryan White died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of eighteen, after being expelled from his middle school due to his HIV-infection. I didn’t think twice about the controversial nature of the book; I simply thought this was a story that needed to be shared. I had no political or personal motivation, other than I believed that knowledge is the best education, and when we know more we can do more. I knew HIV wasn’t a ‘gay disease’, but feared I was in the minority at my school.
Around the same time, Tommy Lasorda, the famous manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, faced his own personal tragedy when his son, Tommy Junior, died at the age of thirty-three. When interviewed by journalist Peter Richmond, Lasorda reacted strongly to the idea that his son was gay:
“Back in his suite, in the residence area of Dodgertown, I ask him if it was difficult having a gay son.
“My son wasn’t gay,” he says evenly, no anger. “No way. No way. I read that in a paper. I also read in that paper that a lady gave birth to a fuckin’ monkey, too. That’s not the fuckin’ truth. That’s not the truth.”
I ask him if he read in the same paper that his son had died of AIDS.
“That’s not true,” he says.
I say that I thought a step forward had been taken by Magic Johnson’s disclosure of his own HIV infection, that that’s why some people in Los Angeles expected him to…
“Hey,” he says. “I don’t care what people…I know what my son died of. I know what he died of. The doctor put out a report of how he died. He died of pneumonia.””
How sad to lose your son at such a young age, and feel such shame over his sexual identity that even in his death, his father felt compelled to be the ‘tough guy’ and deny everything. What a lost opportunity for so many young athletes to feel ok about themselves and their sexual orientation. How many lives could have been saved if more people had the courage to tell the truth? How much progress could have been made if more people could have lived their lives openly and honestly?
Fast forward to 2013. Jason Collins, of the Washington Wizards, makes an announcement:
“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.
I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation. I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, “I’m different.” If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”
When I read Collins’ statement, I immediately flashed back to Magic Johnson and remembered the panic many felt about his HIV status in the 90s-could he infect other athletes through sweating or contact with them? Would he be treated the same now that he was infected with the ‘gay disease’?
And then I felt admiration for Collins. His courage is honorable; to come out as the first openly gay athlete takes not only a tremendous amount of self-confidence, but also self-love. He isn’t afraid of the repercussions of his statement, and if he is, he doesn’t show it. The public sees a strong, masculine, successful athlete who just happens to be gay. At 7’, 255 pounds, he may break the ‘gay stereotype’ that is still perpetuated by some.
Another step forwards in this story. Another moment in time, bound to mark history. Another brave face to admire and look up to.
And all the time I’m feeling like we are moving forward with our society becoming more tolerant and accepting of sexuality and differences, I’m also feeling sad that it’s even an issue at all. I wish we could forget about what people do in their bedrooms-gay and straight-and get to the real important issues: how we treat each other and move through the world together.
Thank you Magic, Tommy, Ryan and Jason. Thank you for having courage, for not being afraid to share your reality, and for helping to teach our children of the 21st century. You are real heroes.