If you aren’t old enough to remember the 1980s, you probably don’t remember the days when AIDS was considered both a badge of shame and a plague with the potential to take down all of humanity. Twenty years ago this month, two disparate events formed a snapshot of how AIDS was viewed at the time: basketball star Magic Johnson’s announcement that he was HIV-positive, and less than three weeks later, on November 24, 1991, [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Freddie Mercury[/lastfm]‘s death from pneumonia as a complication of AIDS.
Mercury was reported to have been diagnosed with HIV in 1987, although he consistently denied it in public. Mercury’s friends denied his diagnosis as well, even after it became clear that he was seriously ill. After his final sessions with [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Queen[/lastfm], filming the video for “These Are the Days of Our Lives” in the summer of 1991, Mercury’s health deteriorated swiftly. He eventually decided to stop taking medication to fight the disease. On November 23, Mercury finally announced officially that he had AIDS, but fans had only about 24 hours to absorb the news before hearing of his death.
Mercury was the most famous rock star to die of AIDS up to that point — and not merely that, but one of the most famous people to die of the disease, period, alongside movie star Rock Hudson, musician Liberace, and teenager Ryan White. And in the days after Mercury’s death, most people imagined Johnson would soon join the list.
It hasn’t turned out that way, of course. Medical advances these last 20 years have made AIDS into far less than a sure death sentence. Shifting public opinion has had its impact, too. Mercury’s death from AIDS has in no way affected his place in the pantheon of flamboyant rock stars — for most of us, it’s not among the first half-dozen things we think of when we consider his career.