By Nathaniel Katz
I have to confess that there are three holidays that are near and dear to my heart: Thanksgiving, Easter and March Madness. There’s an entirely separate column to be written exploring that triumvirate. For the moment, suffice it so say that this past weekend was the pinnacle of the most secular of my holiday celebrations. My best estimate is that I spent approximately 40 hours watching college hoops from this past Thursday through Sunday. Even though there was nearly always a game to watch between 9 AM and 9 PM Pacific Time, I was exposed to my fair share of commercials. As usual, most of these ads drove me batty – I’m looking at you Bud Light. And despite my love for Alicia Keys and her music, I was nearly driven insane by how often her HP ad ran over the span of those four days.
In the midst of the commercial side of the madness, something jumped out at me. Dove launched an ad campaign for its new line of men’s hygiene and body care products. The campaign’s tagline is “Journey to Comfort” and it features former basketball players speaking candidly about their experiences with pressure and struggle in their lives. The most striking of these talking heads was none other than Earvin “Magic” Johnson. While others thus far have one commercial apiece, at least three separate ads featured Magic over the course of the weekend.
Seeing Magic Johnson in a commercial is nothing new. Magic has been a relatively successful pitch man for a long time running. What drew my attention was hearing Magic deliver the final tagline that runs throughout the campaign – “I’m Magic Johnson and I’m definitely comfortable in my own skin.”
When I heard those words my mind jumped back 16 years in time, to my days as a member of the HIV/AIDS Peer Educators in the New Jersey Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In the fall of 1995, I joined a small group of Lutheran youth from around the state that traveled to churches in our synod and beyond to teach our peers the truth about HIV, how it was transmitted, and that those who had the misfortune of being HIV positive were as human as we were.
At that time, there were few public faces to be applied to the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV took on a life of its own as an alien pariah that warranted fear first, suspicion next, and after that caution at best. There were a handful of celebrities who had gone public with their HIV positive status – Freddie Mercury, Arthur Ashe, and Magic Johnson among them. Sadly, Freddie and Arthur left this world all too soon, and before long Magic stood alone on the public stage.
What I find so amazing about this new Dove ad is that after so many years of struggle and ultimate uncertainty, Magic is able to put himself before the American public and say that he is comfortable in his own skin. Fifteen years ago there was absolutely no way that the American public would have allowed that statement to stand. If you were HIV positive, conventional wisdom dictated that you were live in shame for the remainder of your natural born life. As my colleagues and I began to meet HIV positive folks during the course of our work, we learned that if the disease itself was not wreaking havoc on their body, the weight of its stigma was backbreaking all on its own.
It’s easy to forget that Magic was quickly shunned within the fraternity of pro basketball players in the wake of his diagnosis. When Magic announced his intention to return to the NBA in 1996, Karl Malone famously stated that he didn’t want to walk out on the same floor as Magic for fear that he would contract HIV. Magic’s diagnosis initially hurt the cause of those living with HIV more than it helped. His diagnosis forced many of the most ignorant and intolerant groups and individuals within American society to reckon with the reality that heterosexuals could also contract HIV. It was no longer a “gay disease” inflicted by God upon homosexuals. Magic’s diagnosis opened the eyes of heterosexuals, for sure. But for those who had already committed themselves to the position that HIV’s existence was evidence of divine punishment, it simply meant that punishment clearly extended beyond homosexuals to anyone guilty of “sexual immorality.”
Even those of us who worked as activists to educate the public about HIV were somewhat apprehensive. We stood on the sidelines dreading the eventuality of Magic’s wasting away into certain death. HIV was a death sentence, after all.
So, here we stand in 2011. Magic is still with us, and is living a full and vibrant life. His life now stands as an inspiration to HIV positive and negative individuals alike. His entrepreneurship continues to uplift urban communities around the United States and over all these years we have almost come to forget that Magic Johnson is HIV positive. Long gone are the days when Magic would hold press conferences that would announce his T-cell count. Today, Magic is much more likely to appear in a commercial for T-Mobile.
What are we to make of all this? Should Americans everywhere pat themselves on the back for getting over their fear of HIV? I think the answer to that is clearly no. I think that Magic’s confident appearance provides us with an opportunity to take a closer look at HIV+ life in America. There is hardly any public discussion of HIV in our country today and we’ve come to think of it as primarily an African disease that white westerners don’t really have to worry about anymore. But what about those Americans who are living with HIV? What are their lives like? How hopeful are they that a cure can be found? And are they able to say that they are “definitely comfortable in their own skin”? How would we respond to anyone other than Magic saying that they were?
The truth of the matter is that while Magic may be our longest-tenure HIV positive celebrity, he is not the face of HIV. Magic is a wealthy heterosexual man. He has always been able to afford the best medical treatment that money can buy. He can afford to pay personal trainers, nutritionists, and any expert his heart desires. And if he needed it, he could even afford to pay a team of personal assistants to make sure that he took all his medications on at their appointed times. Needless to say, the majority of Americans living with HIV are not so lucky.
To me, it the timing of these Dove commercials could not be more perfect. We find ourselves in the midst of Lent, a season in which Christians are called to be penitent and reflect on the consequences of our actions. This is a time in the Christian calendar when we are meant to question how well we are living out the message of the Gospel – to love our neighbors, especially those out on the margins. As the rector of my home church of All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena, CA likes to say, “Lent is not about giving up chocolate and cheap white wine.” These forty days are a time for us to take stock of our lives as Christian individuals and Christian communities.
I have to admit that I have been struggling with my Lenten practice this year. I considered giving up caffeine on the premise that it would truly impact my daily life and force me to reflect. But after this weekend of dedicated basketball watching, I think I have found my answer. I want to know what the real state of HIV in America is today. How far have we come? Who is the face of HIV today? What is their life like? And does their life reflect the kind of love that Jesus challenged us to live out in his life and death on the cross?
That is the Lenten journey that I have staked out for myself, thanks to Magic and the good folks at Dove. I encourage you to come with me and do some real soul searching. As Rev. Bacon challenged his congregation this past weekend, use this Lent as an opportunity to go outside your comfort zone. Put yourself in a place where you don’t feel comfortable in your own skin and see what happens. Who knows? You might even find the face of God out there on the margins.
Nat Katz currently serves as the Epps Fellow for Undergraduate Ministry at The Memorial Church at Harvard University. In May 2010, he completed his studies in the Master of Divinity program at Harvard Divinity School. He is seeking ordination in the Episcopal Church and is sponsored through All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, CA. In addition to being a self-proclaimed Reinhold Niebuhr fanatic, Katz is interested in the intersections between religion, culture and politics.