Magic Johnson on 22 Years of HIV/AIDS Activism

Few have had so great an impact on our collective understanding of HIV/AIDS as the legendary Earvin "Magic" Johnson. The former NBA star's reveal of his own diagnosis in 1992 began what was then most meaningful public conversation about the HIV virus---and the possibility of life after infection. For the past 22 years, Johnson has been an outspoken advocate for both HIV awareness and prevention. Recently, he partnered with the makers of OraQuick, the first at-home HIV testing kit to get the FDA's stamp of approval. 

We caught up with Magic Johnson to discuss his decades long crusade and why HIV testing is especially crucial in the Black community. 

EBONY: Your activism has been critical to the promotion of safe sex and HIV testing across the world. Especially, in the African American community. How does this make you feel?

Magic Johnson: The work that we’ve been able to do makes me feel good. We still got a lot more work to do. You want to continue to educate our community and we want to continue to go get people to get tested.  That’s very important. And then a lot of times we go get tested but we don’t go back for our results.  It’s been that stigma issue that we’ve always had and that denial issue in the African American community that we’ve always had.  That’s why it’s important that [with] all the new cases in our community, we’ve got to bring those numbers down.   And that’s why I work so hard to continue to educate our community about HIV/AIDS because now we’re talking about other things instead of just talking about HIV/AIDS.  That’s why I’m working with OraSure and OraQuick.  Now, I think some of the things that have been an issue for our community in terms of people seeing us going to the doctor and taking the test, OraQuick is very important.  Now you can have it in your home and know the results in less than 20minutes.  That can be a game changer for African Americans.

EBONY: If someone is planning to take the OraQuick HIV testing at home, what should they do to prepare?

MJ: I really think just having somebody—whether you can take it with your family member, your boyfriend or girlfriend, whatever, and just have somebody there who will support you.  The two of you can even take it together and almost have like a testing party in a sense.

EBONY: Despite all the advances in treatment and prevention, we still see many people becoming infected year after year.  Are you surprised by the amount of people who still don’t protect themselves and their partners?

MJ: Definitely. I’m definitely surprised because our community has been educated.  We know the facts and the numbers. The problem is we’re still having unprotected sex.  There’s still a lot of people walking around who have HIV and don’t know they have it so they’re infecting other people and other women.  It’s really devastating for our community.  We need to first stop having unprotected sex and continue to educate our loved ones, our friends and our community about HIV and AIDS.  Last but not least, the Black churches are finally coming around and having HIV/AIDS ministries.  My churchWest Angeles [Church of God In Christ] with Bishop [Charles E.] Blake,  has an HIV/AIDS ministry.  That’s been really important that they joined the HIV/AIDS fight because they can speak to their congregation about going to get tested.

EBONY: What are your thoughts on people who question the severity of living with HIV because they see you looking so healthy and living a full life.  Do you think young people have an unrealistic idea of what it means to live with HIV/AIDS?

MJ: Oh yeah! I’ve been a blessing and a curse of HIV. The blessing that a lot of people went out and got tested after seeing me with it so it raised the awareness level.  Then the curse is because of the fact that I’m doing so well, now young people say “I can be like Magic.” The virus acts different in all of us and people have died in 22 years since I’ve had this.  People are still dying and young people have to understand that.

EBONY: Why do you think we haven’t seen another mainstream athlete come forward and disclose an HIV diagnosis?

MJ: That I can’t tell you. I don’t know if another one has it or not, or another African-American who is high profiled has it.  Even if they do, they have to make a decision for themselves whether or not they want to go public or not. It’s a hard thing.  They’ve got to be able to handle all that comes with that.  Every individual has to make up their own mind.