I first remember hearing about HIV/AIDS not from PSAs or in a Presidential address, but from Ryan White, a young man who died 21-years ago today at the age of 18. The world owes him a lot, especially never forgetting.
Back in 1984, when little was known about HIV, then-maligned as simply a “gay cancer,” a 13-year old, Indiana-based hemophiliac named Ryan White received a tainted blood transfusion and was later diagnosed with HIV. His middle school, fearful of contagion and parental outrage, subsequently expelled him, leading to a lawsuit and national media coverage.
White was eventually allowed to return to school, and in the process became an international star whose illness and bravery garnered him a host of celebrity friends, including Elton John, Elizabeth Taylor, Alyssa Milano and Michael Jackson, who gave White a red convertible when he turned 16. And Lukas Haas even played White in a television movie about his life.
Shoot, White was so famous and well-respected, he became pals with President Ronald Reagan, a man who didn’t say the word AIDS until 1987, and hosted a post-Oscar party with The Gipper and wife Nancy in 1990, shortly before he died.
White showed the world that AIDS wasn’t just a “gay” disease, nor was it contracted simply through unsafe sex or drug use. It was — and is — a human pandemic that could strike anyone, anywhere.
The legacy he left was incomparable: Jackson dedicated the “Dangerous” track “Gone Too Soon” to White, and then-mega star Tiffany did the same with her song “Here in My Heart.” On a legislative level, meanwhile, the U.S. government approved the Ryan White Care Act, which continues to provide low-income Americans with assistance in treatment and care, and inspired Elton John’s eponymous AIDS foundation, as well as one named after White himself.
The Ryan White Foundation, sadly, shut its doors in 2000, years after MTV and celebrities had made AIDS the cause. And despite all the attention surrounding White back in the 1980s and 1990s, the nation’s young adults — between the ages of 20 and 29 — today have the highest infection rate in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The energy, activism and awareness White helped spearhead has faded, been forgotten and ignored.
On this, the anniversary of White’s death, it’s imperative that every American, and every human, in fact, remember this young man’s mission. He opened our eyes to HIV/AIDS, and to honor his memory, those eyes must remain open.
Cincinnati-based cartoonist Jim Borgman won a Pulitzer Prize for this heart-wrenching cartoon commemorating Ryan White’s death.