POZ Exclusives : The Magic Formula for Fighting HIV - by Kellee Terrell

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May 1, 2007

The Magic Formula for Fighting HIV

by Kellee Terrell

Scroll to the bottom of this page for a video of this event!

A few nights ago, hundreds of New Yorkers filled the pews of Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Brooklyn. They came to hear basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson and other community leaders talk about HIV in the black community. The evening, sponsored by Abbott Laboratories, was part of a nationwide campaign called “I Stand by Magic: Campaign to End Black AIDS.” The grassroots campaign aims to reduce the rate of new HIV infections in the African-American community by 50 percent over five years (Brooklyn’s HIV-positive population is believed to be about the same as the combined caseload of 45 states). Front man Magic tours the country, talking to groups like the one filling the church, encouraging them to get tested, to protect themselves and, if they are already HIV positive, to get care and treatment and to stick with it.

While the crowd awaited the arrival of the NBA star, a range of speakers riveted the audience with personal stories of how their lives have been touched directly or indirectly by HIV.

Shadé Ogunleye, Miss Black New York, came to the podium wearing her sparkling crown and recounted a list of questions posed to her by the New York City students she’s met on school visits: Is there a cure for AIDS? How do I know if my boyfriend has HIV? How can I get tested without my parents knowing? “These [questions] are the results of abstinence-only education,” she told the crowd.

“Just one short year ago,” Ogunleye went on, “I believed that AIDS only happened to gay men, [IV] drug users or African children. I never thought about it in terms of my family, my friends or myself. But after meeting my [college] roommate, who lost her parents to AIDS, I realized that it can happen to anyone.”

Other speakers included Shirlene Cooper, deputy director of the New York AIDS Housing Network, and Dierdre Wallace-Hines, advocacy relations manager at Abbott. They discussed the problems of accessing quality HIV care and the stigma surrounding AIDS, as well as the importance of safer sex and getting tested. Many in the audience scribbled down notes and snapped photos with their cell phones. “Just being here is a huge first step—even if you are here to see Mr. Johnson,” Helena Kwakwa, MD, told them. “Learn one, do one, teach one. Take the information you learn here today and teach someone in your life about it.”

Then, Magic entered the church. The audience leapt to its feet, applauding wildly as he offered his famous smile—greeting people warmly and patiently posing for cameras. Rather than speaking from the podium like the other speakers, he walked through the aisles of the church speaking directly to the people he passed and making a special point of addressing people living with HIV.

Magic urged positive people to take care of themselves, physically and emotionally. “Do your part; take your medicine and have the attitude ‘I am going to be here for a long time,’ ” he said. He also urged them not to pay any mind to what other people think about them and their HIV status. “If they don’t want to love, hug or high-five you, so what? Get you another friend! Because if you are good with the man upstairs, then that is all that matters.”

He debunked the myths that he had been cured or was on special treatment, saying he’d had access to the same drugs as his audience and emphasizing how his attitude, and the support of his wife Cookie, helped him stay well. He told the story of how—nearly three years after his diagnosis—he was lying around moping on the couch. “Cookie told me to get out,” he said. “I asked, ‘Get out the room? Or get out the house?’ and Cookie said ‘Get out of the house and don’t come back until you’re ready to be the man I married.’ ”

Magic concluded his talk by answering some questions before heading out to another meeting in Brooklyn, with students at Medgar Evers College. (At the college, he was met by a group of HIV activists—angry about the high prices of Abbott meds in Thailand—who asked him to try to influence the pharmaceutical company into reconsidering its position on global pricing. Magic said he would “talk to them.”)

At the church, the audience filed out to the accompaniment of church hymns sung by the Housing Works Gospel choir. Outside on the sidewalk they encountered a line of volunteers from Street Wise, a program of Planned Parenthood of New York, who offered complimentary condoms and free rapid HIV testing and counseling conducted in a white van at the corner. “Get tested!” one of the volunteers yelled. “Know your status today.”

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