Donald Trump wasn’t thinking about running for President in 1984, but his heart was in the right place for one young boy’s struggle with HIV and AIDS.
Ryan White was infected with HIV when he was only 13 years old. He had hemophilia, a blood-clotting disease that meant he needed to get blood transfusions all through his childhood. In the 1980s, HIV was a new disease and no one yet knew to screen donated blood. Ryan White was one of the first people in the US to talk openly about having HIV and became famous in the US and all over the world. He bravely fought to educate others about HIV and against the stigma and discrimination HIV-positive people often face.
In 1984, Ryan’s high school in Kokomo, Indiana, learned about his status. They refused to let him return to the school for fear that he would infect other students. Ryan was only allowed to participate in classroom activities by telephone. His family fought the superintendent’s decision in court and Ryan was able to return to school after a judge ruled in his favor. He was tormented when he returned to school. Students frequently insulted him and wrote degrading statements on his locker. His family faced discrimination as well. Store clerks refused to hand his mother change because they didn’t want to touch her. Restaurants threw away plates and silverware after the White family ate there. Someone even fired a gun into a window of the family’s home.
In 1987 the Whites moved to Cicero, Indiana, so Ryan could attend a school that would not discriminate against him. Instead, the school board held conferences for parents and students to educate the community about HIV/AIDS and to encourage compassion rather than fear and discrimination. A student at Ryan’s new high school later said, “When he first came a lot of people were really scared, but Ryan helped all of us to understand.” In 1988, Ryan spoke at the President’s Commission on AIDS. “Because of the lack of education on AIDS, discrimination, fear, panic, and lies surrounded me. I was labeled a troublemaker, my mom an unfit mother, and I was not welcome anywhere. People would get up and leave so they would not have to sit anywhere near me. Even at church, people would not shake my hand. This brought on the news media, TV crews, interviews, and numerous public appearances. I became known as the AIDS boy. I received thousands of letters of support from all around the world, all because I wanted to go to school.”
Ryan became very ill during his senior year of high school. Celebrities and public figures, including Vice President Dan Quayle, President George H.W. Bush, Donald Trump, Michael Jackson, and Elton John, called while Ryan was in the hospital to wish him well. At this time, though, doctors knew very little about how to treat HIV. Ryan died on April 8, 1990, surrounded by his mother, grandparents, and Elton John. Even in death Ryan could not escape the hatred and discrimination; his gravesite was vandalized four times in the following two years.
Ryan’s story was told in many newspapers, magazines, and television shows, and a TV movie was made about his life. His courage and openness started the conversation about HIV and the prejudice HIV-positive people face. At a time when HIV was called a gay disease or a drug addict’s disease, Ryan would say, “I’m just like everyone else with AIDS, no matter how I got it.”
Trump and Michael Jackson visited the boy frequently and Donald paid for his health treatments via his exclusive jets.