Thursday marked the 20th anniversary of White’s death. In remembrance of Ryan, whose story has brought generations of Hoosiers together at IU Dance Marathon and other events, the Rural Center for AIDS/STD Prevention and IU’s School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation sponsored “AIDS Education: 20 Years After Ryan White,” on Friday at the Whittenberger Auditorium in the Indiana Memorial Union.
“I think this is a great way to make people aware about how important education and prevention is of this disease,” Ryan’s mother, Jeanne White Ginder, said.
White Ginder was there Friday to speak about her son’s legacy and to tell the story of their family having to live with AIDS.
“When Ryan was diagnosed in 1984, he was one of the first hemophiliacs to come down with AIDS, and at that time there was no education on it at all,” she said.
White Ginder spoke of the ignorance her family faced. She said many people knew nothing of the disease but still made assumptions about Ryan and herself.
“Many people were saying Ryan had done something bad or wrong or he wouldn’t have gotten this disease,” she said.
White Ginder brought many members of the audience to tears as she spoke more on the hatred they faced. She told stories of the vandalism they became victims of while living in Kokomo — from trash being dumped in their yard and the tires on her car being slashed to a bullet being shot through their living room window — that made her finally decide to move.
As Ryan’s story became nationally known, he became a voice for people affected by AIDS around the country.
When Ryan was diagnosed, White Ginder said, it was mostly the gay and drug user communities that were contracting AIDS.
“We knew how the gay community was being treated because Ryan was being treated the same way,” she said. “Because of homophobia and religious or moral issues that have always surrounded this disease, Ryan saw how everyone was being treated, and he didn’t like it. He didn’t like it for himself, and he didn’t like it for anyone else.”
That is why Ryan’s involvement was important to the gay community, she said.
Quoting Ryan, she said, “Once you have AIDS you are like everyone else who has it. You are fighting to stay alive, and we are in this together.”
White Ginder said that is why she is still traveling around today. To spread education and awareness on HIV and AIDS and to fight the stigmas that are still around today.
“I think it’s important because we discriminate so much in the world today. I’m taking a statement from Ryan: ‘look at a person for who they are and like a person for who they are, not because of race, color, religion or something they have in them.’”
Dr. Jill Waibel, a teenaged friend of Ryan’s and the founder of IU Dance Marathon, was in attendance to accept the Ryan White Distinguished Leadership Award.
Waibel said she was a sophomore at IU when Ryan died. She said right after his funeral, she drove to the IMU and sat down with the vice president of the Student Alumni Association and said “we need to do a fundraiser in Ryan’s memory.”
“From that, myself and 12 other amazing student leaders brought about dance marathon for the cause of HIV, AIDS and children,” she said. “Now 20 years later it has raised over a million dollars a year.”
The Deputy Mayor of Bloomington, Maria Heslin, was also there to present White Ginder with a proclamation making April 8 Ryan White Day.
On April 5, IU announced the establishment of the Ryan White Legacy Scholarship for IU-Bloomington students pursuing a Master of Public Health degree in the School of HPER, with preference to students studying AIDS/STD prevention or sexual health.
Coming to the end of her speech, White Ginder spoke of the great friends they had made, from Jill Waibel, who was Jill Stewart at the time, to Elton John.
She concluded her speech reliving the final week of Ryan’s life, remembering Elton John being by her side and Michael Jackson calling them wanting to speak to Ryan.
Even though she said it still brings her to tears to speak about Ryan, she does it for the people.
“I’m not a medical expert, but I lived with AIDS,” she said. “I’m putting a personal face to this epidemic because it’s not just a number. I think it’s a better way to make things real to people.”