Yesterday, on the 20th anniversary of Magic Johnson’s announcement of his HIV status, we were reading about his impressive record as an AIDS advocate – and reminded once again of the enduring legacy of our co-founder, Elizabeth Glaser.
When Johnson first learned that he was HIV-positive, his first concern was for his family. After determining that his wife Cookie and unborn baby were HIV-negative, he next faced a difficult decision about his own future.
He knew he would have to retire from basketball, but would he reveal his condition to the public, or guard his privacy?
For advice and comfort, he reached out to one of the most high-profile and visible figures in the AIDS community at that time.
“I think in the beginning it was 50-50,” Johnson said yesterday at a news conference
, talking about his decision to disclose his HIV status. “But then I talked to Elizabeth Glaser.”
Elizabeth had contracted HIV through a blood transfusion in 1981
, and unknowingly passed the virus on to her daughter Ariel, and later to her son Jake. As the wife of the high-profile actor Paul Michael Glaser, she too grappled with disclosing her status.
After Ariel’s death in 1988, she had created the Pediatric AIDS Foundation with friends Susie Zeegen and Susan DeLaurentis. She had lobbied Congress and raised money for pediatric AIDS research largely from behind the scenes, until the National Enquirer threatened to reveal her family’s story and her illness.
She decided to beat them to the punch and go public with her HIV status
“I needed to talk to somebody who was going through the same thing I was going through to help me understand what I was in store for,” Johnson explained
. “She was the one who helped me as Cookie and I decided to go public.”
Magic Johnson went on to follow in Elizabeth’s footsteps. Like her, he made a decision to get involved, share his story, and not stand idly by while adults and children fell victim to this devastating disease.
“What Elizabeth taught Earvin more than anything was to not be afraid of the disease, but rather to embrace it,” Foundation co-founder Susie Zeegen explained to ESPN LA
. “They got dealt really bad hands, but look what they did with it."
Before her death, Elizabeth worked tirelessly to ensure that children weren’t left behind in the fight against AIDS. Magic also became a powerful advocate for people living with HIV, creating the Magic Johnson Foundation
to address the epidemic in underprivileged and minority communities.
Johnson continues to speak about the need for greater prevention efforts, particularly in the African-American community.
“He has such an ability to communicate what the realities of this disease are and that’s a gift,” said Zeegen
Like Elizabeth Glaser, Magic Johnson’s impact reaches far beyond the United States. His story resonates across cultures, and continues to raise awareness about a disease that affects us all.
“[Elizabeth] told me that what this disease needs is a face, and that I could be that face,” Johnson told the LA Times
. “She told me I could save people’s lives. I thought about it, and she was right.”
Gary Karton is a communications officer and Robert Yule is the senior media relations manager for the Foundation based in Washington, D.C.