PRINT January 1992


Johnson and “Johnson”

ON NOVEMBER 7, 1991 AIDS finally became national news. Despite the massive efforts of AIDS activists for over a decade to educate the public and the media, only a few stories had broken through. The deaths of Rock Hudson and Liberace were treated largely as circulation-boosting scandals by the tabloids; the death of Ryan White was a tragic human-interest story, not unlike the fate of a child fallen into a well. But during an afternoon press conference—called just as the Thomas-Hill affair began to lose its urgency, just as neo-Nazi David Duke was achieving legitimacy with appearances on Donohue, Nightline, and Larry King—the reality of the disease collided with the spectacle-obsessed, commodity-consuming culture once and for all. Basketball superstar and major corporate sponsor Magic Johnson had tested positive for HIV. It was the lead story on every broadcast that night, and front-page news in every major daily the next morning.

The Los Angeles Times made Johnson the lead, and even the New York Times, a paper with indifferent sports coverage and a history of hostility to AIDS-related issues, ran stories on pages A1 and B11, and offered three solid pages of reporting inside. A boxed insert guided the reader to related stories: “The Message,” “The Illness,” “The Reaction,” “The Endorsements.” New York Newsday, New York’s best sports paper, had 13 pieces in the news and sports sections, including a useful “What It Means to You” public-service entry that should have been run every day since the inception of the epidemic.

George Bush made news of his own by saying, after almost 90,000 AIDS deaths during his presidency, “I can’t say I’ve done enough,” and inviting Johnson to join the government’s National Commission on AIDS. (Johnson accepted.)

Scores of reasons for the breakthrough into mass awareness have been pitched: Johnson’s graciousness, his skill, his smile, his salary, his endorsements, his supposed courage in publicly acknowledging his HIV status—and most important, his putative heterosexuality. Especially his heterosexuality. This is the ugly part of the spectacle.

The night after the press conference Johnson appeared on the Arsenio Hall Show. He had turned down every other major news and talk show in the country. The applause was deafening as he walked out on stage, and continued for almost four minutes. When Magic and Arsenio finally quieted the crowd, they wasted no time with their shared message:

—You called and said you wanted to come on. Why?
— . . . I want everybody to practice safe sex . . . and be aware of what’s going on.

So far so good. Johnson added that it’s especially important for the black community to be informed, and Arsenio said:

—And there are misconceptions in the community in general. Obviously there are people who, in the back of their mind, think that this might be a homosexual-relationship disease, and you know—I’ll let you go from there.
—Well, first of all, I’m far from being a homosexual, you ought to know that [here the audience went wild with applause] . . . and everybody else who’s close to me understands that. See that’s the whole thing—they think that it only happens to gay people, and that’s so wrong. And even I was naive to think it can only happen to me if this and that, but that’s wrong.

“This and that”?

A few days later New York’s Daily News brayed “TOO MANY WOMEN” in huge front-page type, and then spent two pages exploiting Johnson’s otherwise thoughtful Sports Illustrated exclusive, in which he blames his HIV status on his promiscuity as a sports superstar. “I am certain that I was infected by having unprotected sex with a woman who has the virus. The problem is that I can’t pinpoint the time, the place, or the woman. . . . There were just some bachelors almost every woman in L.A. wanted to be with: Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, and Magic Johnson.”

Somehow, the senators and commentators who cried foul when Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, on the grounds that she was playing to an ugly stereotype of black male sexual appetite, missed this opportunity to do the same again. The fact that all three of these prominent black men were having their supposed sexual preferences and exploits trumpeted around the country made it clear that the assertion of heterosexuality is paramount, even in the face of an epidemic. Incredibly, no one in the press even mentioned that, so soon after the Senate’s hypocritical defense of Thomas and rejection of Hill, black men were being described in national magazines as sexually desirable and promiscuous.

The odd thing, though, is that all three of these men have been widely rumored to be gay, or at least to have had gay relationships. Murphy has been criticized for making homophobic jokes, Arsenio for promoting negative gay stereotypes in his routines. But the rumors exist and persist, and in light of the rarity of female-to-male transmission, and the unlikely scenario that Magic used a dirty needle, questions arise: Is Magic gay? If so, should he come out? Which would be more valuable—a prominent straight spokesperson as a legitimizer of AIDS issues (Liz Taylor doesn’t play to the Magic Johnson crowd) or the acknowledgment of gay sexuality by a major American icon? Even to pose the question, however, is to acknowledge the homophobia of the media and society, and implicitly to perpetuate the guilty/innocent victim dichotomy, a dichotomy with grave social consequences for gay people.

The Fans, the Press, and the Virus

Sports fans have complex relationships to their heroes. Our transference is more physical, kinetic, corporeal than other kinds. The athlete leans, we lean. He or she runs, and our heart races. They spin and jump, and we feel it in our bodies. The attraction of the superstar athlete, like that of Fred Astaire, is in feeling that you could do it too, that his body is, in that moment, an extension of yours. But it goes beyond the delicious anxiety of watching, say, Buster Keaton wobble along the roof of a racing train. Sports transference is built on years of close scrutiny of the idol’s moves, talking them over with friends, practicing and imitating them on the court or field, or in your living room. It is an intimate, erotic, in-body relationship, different from that which one has with other public objects—newscasters, politicians, or even movie and rock stars.

Millions of men had this relationship to Johnson—“Johnson,” slang for prick, dick, cock; not the most current slang, but there it is: Magic Johnson. And here are the fans, inhabiting his body, or imagining his body inside theirs as they drive to the hoop at the local playground or college gym or against the makeshift backboard in a back lot or driveway somewhere. The depth of the pain and shock masses of Americans felt when they learned of Magic’s HIV status only makes sense when you realize that he carried so many people inside his body. That’s why they rushed out by the hundreds of thousands the next day to be tested, overwhelming the hotlines and walk-in facilities in cities around the country.

There is material here for new understandings and changed attitudes. Men love a man who will probably die now of the disease most commonly associated with men loving one another. Newsday’s Steve Jacobson’s column the morning after the announcement set the tone of affection and adoration:

Pour yourself a cup of coffee. Sit down and think about Magic Johnson. Think first about that smile; it comes ahead of even the wondrous things he did on the basketball court . . . broad and contagious and brilliant.

But will any of this help, in the long run, to reduce the stigma surrounding HIV disease, or reduce gay-bashing, or increase funding for health care? Already there are doubts, especially as Johnson’s status as a “straight” icon is reinforced.

New York Native worried that “Johnson may be used by the ‘AIDS’ establishment to present fraudulent information [about the causes and treatment of AIDS] to the American public, which the public will buy because of Johnson’s hero status.” From the other side, in one of the most disturbing statements in recent memory, New York Times sports writer Dave Anderson demonstrated that all the old divisions and prejudices still obtain: “Magic’s message now is, ‘If I can get it, anybody can.’ But anybody with a sense of heterosexual responsibility isn’t likely to get the HIV virus.” (Emphasis added.) The more one unpacks Anderson’s thinking, the more awful it becomes. Is the phrase “heterosexual responsibility” meant to deny the possibility of homosexual responsibility? Is someone with the virus irresponsible by definition? Does it only take a “sense,” or is it responsible behavior that is needed? Obviously it will take more than a superstar’s media campaign to educate Anderson and others like him.

Robert Lipsyte, also writing for the Times, was more to the point when he wrote that Johnson is hardly the ideal safer-sex crusader: “Think about all the women that Johnson may have infected. They will suffer with less support.” Indeed, a few commentators have mentioned “the women” in passing, but most simply seem to be relieved by the assertion of heterosexuality. With it comes male privilege. Imagine the response if a prominent woman athlete had said, to paraphrase Johnson, “As I traveled around NBA cities, I was never at a loss for male companionship.” Sympathetic sports writers would have been very few and far between. As Martina Navratilova told a reporter for the New York Post, “If it had happened to a heterosexual woman who had been with 100 or 200 men, they’d call her a whore and a slut and the corporations would drop her like a lead balloon.” Now imagine that Johnson himself had said “male” rather than “female.” America might never have been the same. Then again, Sports Illustrated might simply have canceled the article.

Finally, the corporations that made Johnson rich pitching basketballs, sneakers, Pepsi, and much else, became queasy at the prospect of having their products associated with AIDS in the public mind. Converse said quickly that it would look for ways to use public-service spots to push for research and education, and Spalding may donate money (but to whom, exactly?) for every Johnson brand-name basketball sold. But Kentucky Fried Chicken and Nestlé Chocolate and Confection Co. (that is, makers of food products, things that go into your body) had not commented on the fate of his sponsorship two weeks after the media storm.

You, the Press, and the Virus

Where all of this will lead is anyone’s guess. It may be just another spectacle, a blip on the screen with tragic consequences, like the invasion of Panama, or the Persian Gulf War—events exploited for public-relations purposes and then retrospectively erased from public discourse, as though lives had not been lost and human rights had not been violated.

If Magic Johnson can make more men wear condoms, a simple-enough goal, then some good will have been done. Already the Fox network has announced that it will accept condom advertising, and CBS is said to be “reviewing” its own condom-ad policy. But the threat of a fundamentalist-led boycott of other network advertisers would probably be enough to scuttle those plans.

Nor is it clear how long the press will make AIDS issues a priority; and if Bush’s commitment in this area is as deep as his vow to be the “education president,” then we can kiss a lot of lives good-bye. Magic Johnson may briefly appear bright in the media light—however he contracted the virus, whatever his public stance—but the daily struggle for AIDS awareness is still bound to take place in media darkness.

David Sternbach is a freelance critic and writer who lives in New York.