I grew up in Indiana during the 1980s. Beyond my He-Man and Star War toys,my extensive baseball card collection, and my love of Nike Air basketball shoes, I really remember watching the nightly news at the dinner table with my family.
By the late 80s, there are so many images that stick out from watching Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Peter Jennings. The Intifada. Gorbachev and Reagan. El Salvador and Nicaragua. The Farm Crisis. The beginning of the end of good paying industrial jobs. Willie Horton.
All these years later, who would have thought that a kid who grew up an hour away from my family’s Brownsburg, Indiana home would have nearly or just as much impact on the world as all those other events and people?
Ryan White was just another Indiana kid when he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984. Though much was not understood about AIDS in the mid 1980s, it was clear that the disease was not easily contagious and that White had gotten the virus after receiving a tainted blood transfusion for his hemophilia.
Back in his home town of Kokomo, White was rejected by his classmates, the school administration, and the White family finally fled the town when somebody fired a gun at their house. White’s family moved to Cicero, Indiana soon after and he was welcomed with open arms by the community and Hamilton Heights high school.
Ryan White died on Palm Sunday, 1990. The day of his funeral former President Ronald Reagan wrote a tribute to White in the Washington Post,though Reagan himself did not mention the AIDS epidemic until 1987-the last year of his presidency. Way too little and way too late for Ronald Reagan but the courage of Ryan White helped transform the nation’s public health.
As the wikipedia entry on White mentions, the teenager never saw himself as an “innocent victim” of AIDS. Jeannie White, Ryan’s mom wrote in the New York Times:
Ryan always said, ‘I’m just like everyone else with AIDS, no matter how I got it.’ And he would never have lived as long as he did without the gay community. The people we knew in New York made sure we knew about the latest treatments way before we would have known in Indiana. I hear mothers today say they’re not gonna work with no gay community on anything. Well, if it comes to your son’s life, you better start changing your heart and your attitude around.”