Athlete Turned Actor Comes Out as HIV-positive
Former basketball star DeMarco Majors talks about surviving assault and living with HIV.
May 26 2017 3:52 AM EST
May 29 2017 9:12 PM EST
Former basketball star DeMarco Majors talks about surviving assault and living with HIV.
DeMarco Majors has been having a recurring dream — one he’s spent countless hours trying to decipher. In the dream, he’s 12 years old and at his favorite candy store. “I had a $20 bill, a $1 bill, and some quarters and dimes. The kind of money I never had as a kid,” he says, laughing.
The candy store isn’t essential to the story. It’s just the set up. “It’s going to make a lot of sense” in a moment, Majors says, urging continued attention. Originally from Illinois, Majors lived in California for a long time before moving to New York City, where he’s been nearly a decade. He doesn’t say what city the dream takes place in, but he asks a guy in the dream’s candy store, “Which way is Eighth Avenue?” before setting out on foot.
Majors interrupts himself, “The crazy thing is I know exactly what I was wearing. I remember the tank top … the pants … and the boots.” But that’s not important. Not yet. “The important part,” he says, “is, as I started walking, I started seeing these houses and they all looked decrepit. They looked like the people inside of them were doing drugs. And I thought about what it would be like to own a house like that.” A recovering addict, Majors can easily imagine that life.
The former basketball star interrupts himself, recalling how uncomfortable his clothes in the dream were. Majors says he realizes the houses he’s passing symbolize a way of life. He keeps walking. The city streets turn to country roads and he’s still walking. He decides to “walk to my mom’s house” in his hometown, Evansville, Indiana, when he’s again reminded about how uncomfortable he is and starts “stretching my shirt to make it bigger.”
He continues walking, passing housing projects, when, “All of a sudden, my pants are comfortable, my shirt … and my shoes are comfortable.” The road has changed again. The pavement has ended and now it’s all green.
“Not once did I look back. I never turned around. I just kept walking. I woke up in tears. I looked at my phone and there was a song playing on Pandora. The title was ‘Letting Go.’”
And that outfit? It was one a former boyfriend had loved seeing him in. “And I was always uncomfortable wearing it, but I always wore it because he loved it.”
Majors believes this dream was about his decision talk to Plus, the first time telling the media he’s living with HIV.
“[In the dream] I finally walked a mile in my own shoes. I wasn’t trying to be someone else. I wasn’t trying to fit in someone else’s clothing. I wasn’t trying to fit into the image society gave to me when I was coming out. I’m walking down the street and I was OK. I didn’t go to my mom’s house. I didn’t turn around to see where I was going.”
More importantly, Majors noticed, “I didn’t have my security blanket. I didn’t try to go to those houses. ‘Cause sometimes when you’re doing drugs, despite the fear and a shame in it, there was a feeling of safety in it. [But] I was walking down the street and I had no fear or shame. And we were supposed to do this interview over the last three days and things kept coming up. And I had this dream an hour ago: now we’re finally having the interview.”
Despite his fond memories of candy stores, Majors says, “growing up black in Indiana in the '80s — that wasn’t a great thing for me. You grow up poor but you don’t know any better. You pick up a basketball because that’s what people tell you you have to do. I didn’t play basketball because I was a good basketball player. I picked up a basketball because it was the only way that I felt safe and that no one was gonna hurt me.”
Majors became a phenomenal talent, but insists, he wasn’t a natural. “I worked my ass off. I was that guy in high school that sat on the end of the bench … that never got to play.”
Hard work paid off when he was recruited by National Collegiate Athletic Association teams. By then, his game was on fleek.
“I remember the one day I dunked for the first time. I didn’t let people know I [could] jump, but I kept trying and trying in secret. I was 13 or 14 years old. I was 5’8” and the ball slid off the rim and I jumped up and pushed the ball in. You couldn’t tell me I wasn’t taller than Michael Jordan at the time — that’s how I felt after accomplishing that dunk!”
In videos, Majors seems much taller. “My coach thought the same thing in high school,” he says. “He had me listed as 6’3”.”
Majors kept practicing, and he got even better, eventually earning the moniker ‘The Helicopter’ for an amazing slam dunk he would do. He looked like a helicopter on the court, arms out, spinning, the ball in his palm.
Despite all that, Majors says, “I had no confidence,” at least not until he moved to California for college. Then, he recalls, “I started to blossom a little bit more. Because that’s what happens to people. Once you get away from people and your past, and you’re actually on your own, you start dribbling a different way, you start thinking a different way, believing a different way.”
His senior year in college, he got the opportunity to play ball professionally — in Argentina. He jumped at the chance and eventually played in Australia, Brazil, and in Hawaii (in the American Basketball Association). He came out along the way, becoming one of a few publicly out gay pro basketball players in the world, and garnering a spot on the 2007 Out 100 list.
He’s since become a model and actor, starring first in the Logo reality show Shirts & Skins (about the all-gay basketball team The Rock Dogs), then in the stage adaptation of James Earl Hardy’s bestselling novel B-Boy Blues, directed by Stanley Bennett Clay. He was also the male lead in Beyoncé’s “Freakum Dress” video and had guest spots on Law & Order and Blue Bloods. Most recently, he wrote, directed, and stars in the forthcoming film, 7.
The onetime underwear model has become a personal trainer, with a knack for motivating clients. He finds his own motivation, he insists, in his personal relationship with God.
“As a little kid,” he says, “there was always a lot of shit that was going on in my family,” he recalls. “I had an imaginary friend [like] a lot of kids do, but my imaginary friend was God. I played Transformers with him. I played ball with him.”
He says, “I still cling to those memories. They give me comfort.” And they helped him realize, “God’s message … was in me.”
A self-described loner, Majors says he “was always so worried about my mom, so worried about my sisters, because of all the things we had seen and were going through.”
Even after he’d become a star, the athlete turned actor felt like his outward image was all a veneer, still hiding the scared little boy from Indiana and all he’d been through, “from the deepest, darkest depressions, suffering paranoid delusions, and hardships.”
Then came a night Majors doesn’t remember, other than some guy telling him he was a doctor. When he woke up Majors discovered he had been drugged, sexually assaulted, and abandoned. Like a lot of survivors, he’s replayed the night over a hundred times in his head, wondering if he could have done something different.
“Just because you’re curious and you go off … and want to hook up with somebody … you never ask for someone to put something extra into your drink. People are hitting on you, you feel good, and every answer is ‘yes.’ You say ‘Yes’ to everything when you’re high. I didn’t say ‘No.’ But when you know that something has happened because you wake up somewhere and you’re looking around and you have no idea where you are — that’s the most terrifying feeling ever. And following that came the shame.”
Majors had lived with shame before. Shame from being poor. Shame from being effete. Shame from not being able to help his mom and sisters. But this — this was an entirely new disgrace.
“The shame comes from not just being raped. I developed an addiction. I lived in a cycle of depression and anxiety and fear and paranoia and hurt and regret for years. I didn’t know how to break it.”
Majors also learned he had acquired HIV from the attack. He admits now that he feared it had defiled him.
“I was afraid that I had corrupted the message that was in me.”
Now he sees, “there is still this message of hope and God in me. Yet, I’m still dealing with this addiction, with this depression. I’m still dealing with an unhealthy personal environment and not knowing what’s truly going on with me. Because all I’ve ever known how to do in my life is keep going.”
For Majors, “that night, its details, they don’t matter. It’s what happened in my life after that and the significance of it that I didn’t understand until today. Until my dream.”
Today, he’s physically healthy, his viral load undetectable, and he recognizes the importance of being “healthy mentally,” especially “when you have an addiction” that you may have to monitor for life.
“You still [make mistakes]. I’m gonna be open about this part. Most men of color, we just don’t deal with being HIV-positive. We [have to] deal with our peers, our church, our society — and everyone who reads this will be like, ‘Don’t we all?’ You may not be able to understand what it’s like to be black and gay in America. But I know what it’s like to be white in America. I’ve had to adapt. I’ve had to learn to speak a certain way. I’ve had to educate myself a certain way.”
Dealing with homophobia and racism is hard enough, he says, but then there’s also the stigma around HIV. “When you hear the things that people say about HIV—. I came out when I was living in San Francisco and I saw these men with facial lesions, skeletal frames, and protruding bellies [from AIDS complications]. That was my fear, of [becoming] what that looks like.”
Although he doesn’t face the physical ramifications of an AIDS diagnosis, Majors admits, “Even with medication, today people don’t understand, yes you are healthy. But the social stigma can destroy a person more than the actual virus itself.”
The thing about stigma is you can stand up to it by coming out about the very thing society has made you feel ashamed of. That’s what Majors thinks his dream meant. By coming out about being HIV-positive, he’s finally comfortable in his own skin, walking in his own shoes — and not looking back. This is Majors letting go of all that fear and shame and claiming his future. Imagine what he can accomplish now with nothing holding him back.