AIDS activist's message combines cynicism, hope Hopkins workshop draws small group

November 11, 1991|By Greg Tasker

Mimi Bennett arrived early, believing "Magic" Johnson's revelation about being HIV-positive would crowd a "Surviving AIDS" workshop with people newly concerned about protecting themselves against the disease.

Her expectations were for naught.

About two dozen people, mostly students, showed up yesterday for the workshop at the Arellano Theatre at the John Hopkins University. It was led by retired AIDS activist and author Michael Callen, who was diagnosed as having the disease in 1982.

"I came early because I thought the place would be mobbed," said Mrs. Bennett, the mother of four children between the ages of 14 and 24. "But I guess it's like everything else, and only people on the fringe show up. I thought we were further along than that."

Mrs. Bennett, who was given five years to live when she was diagnosed as having cancer in 1963, came because she liked the message of hope in Mr. Callen's book "Surviving AIDS."

She also wanted to be informed in case any of her children question her about the disease.

"I like to hook up with people who live their lives" with hope, she said.

But Mr. Callen's message contained more than just hope. It was one laced with cynicism about the cause of the disease, about research into acquired immune deficiency syndrome and about how basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson contracted the AIDS virus.

"I don't believe HIV is the cause of AIDS or has anything to do with AIDS," Mr. Callen said.

He contended that the cause of the disease is unknown and that any cure lies in the differences among the victims and not in the similarities, which scientists are studying.

Mr. Callen said his conclusions are based on his own research and the stories of survivors that he chronicled in his book, which was published in paperback by Harper Collins two weeks ago.

He said the disease affects each victim differently and that many of its victims have survived. He found several patterns among the survivors he interviewed.

Generally, he said, survivors were better educated about the disease and the effects of medication such as AZT. But few were taking AZT or other "similarly toxic treatments."

Many made major changes in lifestyles, such as not using drugs, staying sober and practicing safe sex, he said.

Mr. Callen, a member of the Flirtations, an all-male, all-gay a cappella group that performed at the First and Franklin Street Presbyterian Church last night, didn't bring up Mr. Johnson, but Betty (who asked not to be further identified), the mother of a son with AIDS, brought up the basketball star's case.

"In the last two years, there has been so much apathy about AIDS," she said. "The lack of attendance here is a perfect example of that. Maybe now that we have another role model to bring attention to the world, maybe the government will get off its tushes."

Mr. Callen said it was difficult and painful to hear people, responding to Mr. Johnson's plight, say that "now we should take AIDS seriously."

"What he has done is courageous and will have a tremendous effect on youth of color," Mr. Callen said. "I wish him well. It is my cynical belief that if he takes AIDS medicine, he will get sick and he will have the AIDS disease."

Mr. Callen said there have been few instances of males contracting the virus from women. Mr. Johnson said he contracted the virus from heterosexual intercourse.

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