The November day in 1991 when basketball great Earvin "Magic" Johnson announced he was HIV-positive was a sobering reality check. All of a sudden, the disease many dismissed as affecting only gay men and intravenous drug users had hit a major celebrity.
But the news struck Regina King especially hard. Then 20 years old and already making a living as an actor in Los Angeles, King had just broken up with her first love and first sexual partner -- a man she knew had cheated on her with at least one of the women Johnson had been with.
Antiretroviral therapy -- or ART -- revolutionized HIV treatment in the past few decades. And newer improvements, like one-pill-a-day drugs, are making life with HIV easier and safer.
"HIV really is a chronic disease now," says Brad Hare, MD, medical director of the HIV/AIDS Division at San Francisco General Hospital. "It's like diabetes or high blood pressure." As long as you manage it well, you should expect a long, healthy life.
"I was terrified," says King, who is best known for her roles in the films Ray and Boyz n the Hood, and currently stars in TNT’s Southland TV series. "It took me two years to get up the courage to be tested."
Fortunately, King was free of the disease, but the experience taught her the importance of smart sexual behavior and knowing your HIV status. In 2007 she was approached by the Black AIDS Institute (blackaids.org), a Los Angeles-based think tank devoted to stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS in the black community. BAI was asking celebrities to undergo a public HIV test to raise awareness about the importance of getting tested, and King jumped at the chance. "These days, having HIV isn’t necessarily a death sentence," says King, "but not finding out could be."
HIV in the Black Community
And although HIV/AIDS does not discriminate, statistics show that infection rates in the black community are alarmingly high. According to the CDC, the HIV infection rate for black men is six times greater than for white men, and 15 times greater for black women than white. The most recent CDC report also found that although the black community makes up just 12% of the population, 46% of Americans living with HIV are black. In total, about 1 million Americans have HIV, though 21% don’t know they are infected. "The numbers are really alarming," says King. "And I think a lot of it is lack of information."
Around the same time as her public HIV test, King began working as a volunteer cheerleading coach and realized that mentoring young black and Latina girls was where her skills and passion could make the most difference. She became an official spokeswoman for the Black AIDS Institute in mid-2008.
"There are so many young girls who are behaving the same way we did 20 years ago when we didn’t even know about HIV," says King. "If I can be honest and help them realize it’s not just who they sleep with, but who their partner has slept with, then maybe I can be a part of protecting a lot of people."