Question: What HBO show featured a mystic oracle known as Madame Trash Heap?
Last Question: What 13-year old sued his Kokomo, Indiana school after he was expelled for being HIV-positive?
Answer: Ryan White
Ryan White was the poster child for HIV/AIDS in the ’80s. When he was three days old, White was diagnosed with severe Hemophilia A, a hereditary blood disorder which causes even minor injuries to result in severe bleeding. In order for him to be treated, he received weekly blood transfusions.
At the time, AIDS was poorly understood at the time, to say the very least. It was only associated with the male gay community, because it was first diagnosed among gay men. But, in December 1984, during a partial-lung removal procedure, Ryan White was diagnosed with AIDS. It was discovered that one of the blood transfusions that he had received was infected with the virus.
After the diagnosis, White was too ill to return to school, but by early 1985 had begun to feel better. His mother asked if he could return to school, but was told by school officials that he should not. The school faced enormous pressure from parents and faculty to bar White from the school. There was little-to-no information about AIDS at the time, so people thought that they could get the disease just by casual contact or breathing the same air. Scientists knew it spread via blood and was not transmittable by any kind of casual contact, but ignorance prevailed, and people were scared to be around somebody that had AIDS.
The White family filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the ban. On November 25, an Indiana Department of Education officer ruled that the school must follow the Indiana Board of Health guidelines and that White must be allowed to attend school. Sadly, when White was permitted to return to school for one day in February 1986, 151 of 360 students stayed home. If that wasn’t bad enough, he also worked as a paperboy, and many of the people on his route canceled their subscriptions, believing that HIV could be transmitted through newsprint.
There were many threats of violence, and White was discriminated against in the Kokomo school. When a bullet was fired through the Whites’ living room window, the family decided to leave Kokomo. After finishing the school year, his family moved to Cicero, Indiana, where White enrolled at Hamilton Heights High School. On August 31, 1987, a “very nervous” White was greeted by school principal Tony Cook, school system superintendent Bob G. Carnal, and a handful of students who had been educated about AIDS and were unafraid to shake White’s hand.
The publicity of White’s trial catapulted him into the national spotlight, amidst a growing wave of AIDS coverage in the news media. Between 1985 and 1987, the number of news stories about AIDS in the American media doubled. White made several television and fundraising appearances. Many celebrities appeared with White, including John Cougar Mellencamp, Elton John and Michael Jackson, as well as President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan. Slowly, but surely, the world was becoming more educated about AIDS, with Ryan White playing large part in that.
By early 1990, White’s health was deteriorating rapidly. In his final public appearance, he hosted an after-Oscars party with former president Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan in California. Although his health was deteriorating, White spoke to the Reagans about his date to the prom and his hopes of attending college.
“We owe it to Ryan to make sure that the fear and ignorance that chased him from his home and his school will be eliminated. We owe it to Ryan to open our hearts and our minds to those with AIDS. We owe it to Ryan to be compassionate, caring and tolerant toward those with AIDS, their families and friends. It’s the disease that’s frightening, not the people who have it.”
—Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, April 11, 1990
On March 29, 1990, several months before his high school class graduated and before his senior prom, White entered Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis with a respiratory infection. As his condition deteriorated he was placed on a ventilator and sedated. He was visited by Elton John and the hospital was deluged with calls from well-wishers. White died on April 8, 1990.
In 1992, White’s mother founded the national nonprofit Ryan White Foundation. Elton John was inspired to create the Elton John AIDS Foundation. White also became the inspiration for a handful of popular songs. Elton John donated proceeds from “The Last Song,” which appears on his album The One, to a Ryan White fund at Riley Hospital. Michael Jackson dedicated the song “Gone Too Soon” from his Dem>Dangerous album to White, as did Tiffany with the song “Here in My Heart” on her New Inside album.Follow @returntothe80s