With his courageous announcement that he has the HIV virus, Magic Johnson has awakened a public that seemed content to live with the AIDS epidemic as long as it was confined largely to the poor, people of color, and gay men.
The tragedy of Magic Johnson hopefully will act as a catalyst for increased consciousness and funding to combat AIDS. But the tragedy could turn into a national disgrace unless consciousness moves beyond the horror of the HIV virus.
We already know that AIDS kills. We already know it brings a death so slow and painful that death is a relief. We already know it is transmitted primarily through unsafe sex or contaminated needles.
Educators must go beyond these uncomfortable yet undeniable facts if they are to truly educate children about AIDS. For AIDS is more than a medical disease. It is also inextricably linked to the social diseases of ignorance, racism, and homophobia.
AIDS first devastated the gay community, allowing some bigots to dismiss it as a “gay disease.” Then AIDS wreaked its havoc on intravenous drug abusers, their sex partners and children. African-American and Latino communities, already reeling from the scourge of drugs, were particularly hard hit. With the disease seemingly contained primarily to these groups, the nation never appreciated the seriousness of the AIDS epidemic.
Enter Magic Johnson. The nation will rise to support Magic Johnson, as it should. But will it also rise to support the gay man who gets AIDS, the drug addict who shares needles with his buddy, the prostitute who trades sex for drugs, the teenager who realizes too late that safe sex is a matter of life and death?
Unfortunately, the nation has too easily distinguished between the “victimless” person who gets AIDS from a blood transfusion or heterosexual sex, and those who get it “through their own fault.”
We must teach our children that AIDS does not distinguish between the allegedly moral and immoral, and neither should we in choosing who to support and who to condemn. We must teach that the ignorance, racism, and homophobia surrounding AIDS are as deadly as the strange-sounding diseases that strike people with AIDS.
Most important, as educators, we must go on the offensive against head-in-the-sand zealots who prevent decent sex education and health clinics in our schools. In some cities, the rate of HIV infection is now growing faster among teenagers than any other group. These children, denied information on safe sex and access to condoms, are being sentenced to death.
Yes, sex education must be taught in the schools, and it must go beyond topics such as the menstrual cycle and male hormones. Yes, AIDS must be discussed openly. Yes, gays and lesbians must be portrayed as human beings with the right to choose their own sexual orientation. Sadly, however, only 10% of American children receive comprehensive sex education in school, according to the Sex Information and Education Council of the U.S.
Equally important, but most controversial, condoms should be distributed in high schools in the context of sex education and/ or health clinics. It would be nice if more kids believed in sexual abstinence. But nice is no longer reality. In the age of AIDS, pretending otherwise can mean death.
Issues such as AIDS, sex education, and distribution of condoms are difficult, complex topics requiring sensitivity. Teachers, as well as parents and students, must be educated, and money must be allocated for sufficient teacher training.
But the complexity of such issues cannot be used as an excuse to do nothing. Where there has been silence, the discussions must begin. Where the discussions have been half-hearted, there must be a greater sense of urgency.
Magic Johnson will die. How many more Magics — and drug addicts, poor women and children, gay men, and sexually active teens — must die before we wake up to both the reality of AIDS and its co-partners in death: ignorance, racism, and homophobia?