On April 8, 1990, while I was serving overseas in the USAF, a young man named Ryan White died from complications of AIDS. An event like this would go unnoticed today, but Ryan White’s case was special and exposed both the uglier aspects of human nature and what happens when good people react to a terrible injustice.
The Ugly Face of Ignorance
In the 1980s, virtually nothing was known about HIV and AIDS. As the medical community struggled to get a handle on this disease, ignorance about the ailment and its means of transmission prevailed. Often called the “Gay Plague,” too many people believed the sickness was a judgment from the Christian god, an idea encouraged by the booming televangelist empire. So when Ryan White, a 13-year-old hemophiliac, was first diagnosed in 1984, the full brunt of this prejudice and hysteria was brought to bear on the teenager.
The Kokomo, Indiana, school that White attended barred his return after his diagnosis, which the Whites successfully fought in court. Ryan’s return to school was met with cruelty and taunting, and the family endured having their tires slashed, their home vandalized, and insults hurled at them in public. The Whites were ostracized; I remember seeing the reports on television and hearing the discussions at school-polite ones lead by teachers, less polite ones in the cafeteria – wondering how people could be so cruel to someone dealt a double blow by fate.
Eventually the Whites moved to Cicero, Indiana, where Ryan completed his schooling. Although some Cicero residents were fearful, a student named Jill Stuart took the initiative, bringing medical experts in to discuss HIV with the student body and community at large, effectively dispelling the myths and fears surrounding the illness. In contrast to the bigotry and hatred faced by the Whites in Kokomo, Cicero was welcoming.
Ryan White became the face of a cause: an end to the bigotry and stigma surrounding HIV infections. At a time when having HIV or AIDS meant being shunned, Ryan was meeting with President Regan and rubbing elbows with celebrities. He used his voice to call for more research to fight the disease. His death at the age of 18 spawned the Ryan White HIV/AIDS CARE Act, which provides assistance to uninsured men and women living with the disease.
As HIV infections and AIDS resurge amongst our youth, I can’t help but think of Ryan White and his struggle for acceptance. One year younger than me and a victim of circumstance, Ryan put a human face on a disease that had previously been met with shame and disgust. This April, let’s remember how far we’ve come, and recommit to combatting this disease.
Health Resources and Services Administration: Who was Ryan White (http://hab.hrsa.gov/abouthab/ryanwhite.html), retrieved March 31, 2014
Health Resources and Services Administration: Legislation (http://hab.hrsa.gov/abouthab/legislation.html), retrieved March 31, 2014
Dirk Johnson, New York Times Archives, Ryan White Dies of AIDS at 18; His Struggle Helped Pierce Myths (http://www.nytimes.com/1990/04/09/obituaries/ryan-white-dies-of-aids-at-18-his-struggle-helped-pierce-myths.html), retrieved March 31, 2014.