Double Jeopardy

AIDS and gay denial

by Joe Clark

First published 1992

The invisibility of gay jocks with AIDS is enough to remind you of Orwell's 1984, where history was rewritten in real time. When Magic Johnson came out as HIV-positive, you could almost hear the groans as newspaper interns across the continent were ordered to come up with background pieces pronto. In the curious equilibrium of the mainstream media, who talk about gays or AIDS but rarely both, analysts played up AIDS while glossing over the queerness of the dead.

We read that Tom Waddell died of AIDS, but learned nothing of his crowning achievement, the founding of the Gay Games. The late Jerry Smith's tenure in the NFL was noted, but Smith's longtime friendship with David Kopay was not; nor did we hear the simple fact that Smith was actively gay, if not very openly so, during his football career. (But some people remember: Kopay is planning a private remembrance service for Smith in the California desert.)

"This is part of the new sort of AIDS politics," University of Toronto lecturer Brian Pronger says, "which is now they're trying to make AIDS respectable. Magic Johnson is part of that. One way to make AIDS respectable is by ignoring the homosexuality of the people who have it and have had it. Ignoring Tom Waddel's gayness is pretty ridiculous.

"What you have is a change in the discourse or politics of AIDS. The change is to show it as a heterosexual disease, clean it up in a certain way, and get more funding for it."

When Canadian figure skater Rob McNall died of AIDS-related complications last year, only the satirical Frank magazine dared to note the obvious fact that the majority of male figure skaters are gay. (Let's see if a united German team in the '92 Winter Olympics actively denies it has any homosexual skaters, as East German coaches did in '88.) There was no documentation of the irony that a primary configuration of figure-skating, the (male/female) pairs competition, re-enacts a model of human relationships with very little bearing on the actual life of the typical gay skater.

When Magic retired from the Lakers, ostensibly because he couldn't hack it, he lent credence to the myth that to be an HIV-positive high-level athlete is a contradiction in terms. Tell that to marathoner Brett Nicholson Earle, who's HIV-positive and very much alive. And now we have Australian and American basketball players fearing for their T-cells at the thought of Earvin Johnson playing in the Olympics. And he's not even gay, is he? There's a word for all this, and it's denial.

Does Barcelona have a chapter of ACT UP?

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