By Maggie Kneip
Graceful, sinewy, jump, glitter and cool: nothing like a little of that to relieve my COVID-19 anxiety.
I watch ESPN’s documentary series about Michael Jordan and The Bulls nightly, wondering how it is I know so little about “MJ’s” remarkable athletic artistry, or this championship “Team for the Ages.”
True, I’d never been much of a sports fan, but back in the 90s this had to have been “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Where was I?
Tonight it’s Game One of the 1991 NBA Championship. Chicago’s stadium is packed to the gills with yelling, coughing, spitting fans in seats so close they’re in each other’s laps. No six-foot distancing, no masks, no quarantine. Those were the days.
And tonight, “MJ” is, apparently, meeting his match, the other legendary “MJ”: Magic Johnson of The LA Lakers.
Suddenly, I remember where I was during this 1991 game : in a church, with other HIV-Negative moms, “The First Presbyterian Church” on 11th Street, to be exact. We were holed up there conspiring how to keep our children free from the stigma that was killing their fathers: AIDS.
People couldn’t know our husbands had AIDS or they’d quarantine themselves away from us: not touching us, not walking with us, not even talking to us—though, doing none of those things, could you get AIDS.
We knew, if people knew the truth about our husbands, our lives would never be normal again. And for us, normalcy was at a sky-high premium. The “straight men” we’d married were dying of a “gay,” sexually transmitted disease. How to tell the truth about that, without people thinking you and your kids were sick, too, not to mention…God knows what.
So, in November, 1991, when a straight man named Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Jr., a mega straight man, an ultra straight man, a pro basketball playing straight man, announced—his wife by his side—he, too, had contracted HIV/AIDS, we wives in the church thought, for us, things might get just a little bit more “normal.”
But there was nothing normal about Magic Johnson, a celebrity and athletic superstar, who blithely pawned off the reason for his unfortunate diagnosis on, “being a member of the sexiest, most glamorous team of all.” About his NBA player’s life on the road, Magic said, “There’d be 40 to 50 women waiting in the hotel lobby to meet us.” Nothing gay about him!
Celebrity and its trappings allowed Magic Johnson to keep playing basketball for a short time even after diagnosis, including on the U.S. Olympic Team. It also likely helped keep him from the horrific ravages of an illness that, in just nine short months from his diagnosis, in 1991 took the life of my husband, and that of more than 150,000 other mostly gay, young American men.
So when I see Magic Johnson shooting hoops, let’s just say, I don’t see basketball.
After my husband died, I embarked on a self-styled sort of “emotional quarantine” designed to keep me separate from AIDS, and by association, my late husband. For the kids and me, it would just be clear sailing, here on out.
It’s a long time since. The kids are adults. LGBTQ activists speak, and are heard. I’ve found my voice, too, allowing me to openly recall my beautiful young marriage, my beautiful young husband, and the tragic pandemic that brutally ended both. My emotional quarantine is over.
Best of all, science has found a way to save the lives of people with AIDS.
But we’re facing another pandemic now, one requiring a serious quarantine effort from us all. Unlike AIDS, this one, COVID-19, you can get walking down the street. Like AIDS, it is highly lethal.
As with AIDS in its early days, they don’t know enough about COVID-19 yet, either.
I have faith science will, again, prevail. It’s scary, though, certain people, including several running the government, don’t seem to agree. Nearly thirty years after his AIDS diagnosis, maybe they should check in with Magic Johnson on this, in large part, thanks to science, alive and well. He can set them straight.
Maggie Kneip is the author of, Now Everyone Will Know: The Perfect Husband, His Shattering Secret, My Rediscovered Life, optioned for film by Lookalike Productions.in 2019.