27 years ago this month marks the anniversary of the death of Ryan White. Ryan was the teenager from Kokomo Indiana that after receiving a blood transfusion was diagnosed with AIDS. After his diagnosis in 1984 Ryan and his family faced discrimination and harassment because of the stigma HIV/AIDS had at the time. AIDS was no longer a disease confined to the gay ghetto’s in coastal cities. AIDS had come to the mid-west and it came to a 13 year old hemophiliac.
After Ryan’s diagnosis he was given six months to live, but after beating the odds Ryan was able to get progressively better. Ryan’s mother Jeanne, hoping to keep normalcy in the boys life, asked Ryan’s doctors if he could go back to school. Citing no danger to other students Ryan won the approval from his doctors to return to school. Unfortunately it would not be as simple as that.
Growing up in Indiana we all heard about Ryan White, “The boy with AIDS.” We also heard about the discrimination and harassment that Ryan and his family faced. Fearing that Ryan might infect other students, parents and school officials rallied against Ryan by circulating a petition to have him banned from school. To so many people living in the mid-west the faces of AIDS were promiscuous gay men living in San Francisco or New York. They would see these men dying horrible deaths on the evening news.
Taking the fight to the courts Ryan not only won the right to go back to school he won the attention of the national stage and became a celebrity of sorts. Ryan’s mother became and still is an advocate to the HIV community. She fought against the stigma of HIV/AIDS.
Ryan not only got America’s attention he got the attention of celebrities, one of them being Sir Elton John, who became a sort of father figure to the boy and started a charity in his name, the Ryan White Foundation. A foundation to help those with HIV/AIDS, a foundation that would look for a cure. By the end of the 1980s Ryan was not just “The boy with AIDS,” he had shown the world that you didn’t have to be gay or an intravenous drug user to get the disease. He was able to show the world that AIDS is not a punishment from God. He was able to show the world that AIDS could affect everyone from every walk of life. After his initial diagnosis Ryan went on to live for five more years.
On April 8, 1990, one month before his high school graduation, Ryan White died of complications from AIDS at Riley’s Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis. 10 days after Ryan’s death President George H. W. Bush signed a bill into law known as “The Ryan White CARE Act.” This legislation provided more than $2 billion to help cities, states, and community-based organizations to develop and maintain coordinated and comprehensive systems of diagnosis, care and treatment, for those living with HIV and AIDS. The bill has been reauthorized twice.
Ryan’s death was not in vain and his life still has meaning even 27 years later. Programs named for Ryan are the largest provider of services for people living with HIV/AIDS in the United States. In Southern Indiana and Western Kentucky the Matthew 25 AIDS Services provides clinical services to nine counties and has offices in Henderson, KY and Evansville, IN. In 2001 they were awarded the Ryan White Part ‘C’ Grant for early intervention services to open a medical clinic.
At a time when there was little understanding of a disease that would decimate a community and fear gave way to common sense a 13 year old boy brought the face of understanding to a nation scared of its own shadow. Ryan White’s legacy lives on and because of his legacy so many millions of people will continue to live on.