When Ryan White was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984, he had just had part of his lungs removed and was told by doctors that he would only have six months to live. Little did the world know that Ryan White would go on to live six more years, changing the way Americans think about HIV/AIDS.
Many argue that it was the story of Ryan White that motivated politicians, including former President Ronald Reagan, to action on HIV/AIDS. After White’s death, gay rights activist Larry Kramer said, “I think little Ryan White probably did more to change the face of this illness and to move people than anyone.” Indeed, the largest piece of U.S. legislation dealing with HIV/AIDS in the United States continues to be named after Ryan White, reauthorized and signed in October 2009 by President Barack Obama.
That’s a heck of a legacy for such a little guy.
This month marks twenty years since the passing of Ryan White, and Elton John took a moment to reflect on White’s life in a bittersweet letter issued this weekend. The letter, addressed to White himself, notes that the world could use Ryan White’s voice today, at a time when apathy surrounding HIV/AIDS has reached an incredible high, and stigma surrounding HIV remains so prevalent.
“When you became a celebrity, you embraced the opportunity to educate the nation about the AIDS epidemic, even though your only wish was to live an ordinary life,” John writes in the Washington Post. “Ryan, I wish you could know how much the world has changed since 1990, and how much you changed it.”
Months after Ryan White was diagnosed with AIDS, after proving wrong the doctors that only gave him half a year to live, Ryan White tried to enroll back into his middle school in Russiaville, Indiana. Conservative parents went ballistic, worried that Ryan White’s presence in their child’s classroom would lead to a massive spread of AIDS. On Ryan’s first day back in school in February 1986, 151 students were kept home from school. For weeks after that, people would heckle Ryan and his family in the streets, shouting at him, “We know you’re queer!” Things got so bad that someone eventually fired a bullet into the White’s home, forcing the family to move to a different city.
Despite the open hostility that White and his family faced, he would soon start to change hearts and minds on the issue of HIV. Testifying before President Ronald Reagan’s AIDS Commission in 1988, White said that the discrimination he faced in his Indiana hometown was reason number one why we needed to do a better job of educating people about HIV.
“I was labeled a troublemaker, my mom an unfit mother, and I was not welcome anywhere. People would get up and leave so they would not have to sit anywhere near me. Even at church, people would not shake my hand,” White testified. “It was difficult, at times, to handle; but I tried to ignore the injustice, because I knew the people were wrong. My family and I held no hatred for those people because we realized they were victims of their own ignorance. We had great faith that with patience, understanding, and education, that my family and I could be helpful in changing their minds and attitudes around.”
If there’s anyone in history that can speak truth to the power of forgiveness, Ryan White is it. This is a kid who had a bullet fired into his home because folks in his community couldn’t deal with someone living with AIDS. And what does he do? He maintains his hope that he can change this person’s mind around.
Back in the late 1980s, as the media covered Ryan White’s situation, many in the press were eager to label Ryan White as an innocent victim of AIDS — someone who contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion when he was just a little boy. But for White, that was irresponsible journalism. Why? Cue Elton John:
“When the media heralded you as an ‘innocent victim’ because you had contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion, you rejected that label and stood in solidarity with thousands of HIV-positive women and men,” John writes. “You reminded America that all victims of AIDS are innocent.”
Twenty years later, that sentiment from Ryan White bears repeating. Again. And again. And again.