Twenty years ago, a little girl with HIV captured the hearts of a country grappling with an epidemic when she appeared on a Nickelodeon special and tearfully told basketball legend Magic Johnson that she “just wanted people to know that we’re normal people.”
Despite dire medical predictions that she wouldn’t survive childhood, today that little girl is all grown up and still speaking out. Hydeia Broadbent, now 28, travels the country speaking on behalf of the Magic Johnson Foundation, with AIDS activist organizations, and as part of her own continued efforts (HydeiaBroadbent.com) to raise awareness around HIV and AIDS. As a child with congenital HIV in the late 1980s, Broadbent faced discrimination on a regular basis, and she uses those experiences to educate her audiences.
“When I was a little girl in kindergarten, there was a teacher who was very apprehensive about me being in her class,” Broadbent recalls. Despite Broadbent’s adoptive parents reaching out to the teacher, principal, and faculty, Broadbent still faced an uphill battle. “I sneezed and I cleaned it up and washed my hands. But then the teacher was so freaked out that she actually sprayed me with bleach because she thought HIV/AIDS might be airborne. Which it’s not.”
Watch Hydeia on Where are They Now? below:
Watch Hydeia on the Nickelodeon special below:
(Left: Hydeia in her room as a child)
Despite progress in medical treatment, Broadbent says there’s still a massive stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS. “I think we need to stop looking at HIV/AIDS as a moral disease,” Broadbent says. “Because when you see someone who has lung cancer, you don’t say, ‘That’s what they get for smoking all those cigarettes.’ And when it comes to HIV/AIDS, we need to be less judgmental.”
That’s a message Broadbent’s parents instilled in her. Patricia and Loren Broadbent have always encouraged their daughter to “speak out and speak up,” unashamed and unafraid. That’s been their mantra since the Broadbents adopted an abandoned 6-week-old infant in Las Vegas in 1984, knowing only that the girl’s mother had been addicted to drugs. Three years later, when Broadbent’s birth mother had another child who was HIV-positive, the infant’s social worker encouraged the Broadbents to have Hydeia tested. The doctors returned with a grim prognosis: The girl was HIV-positive and not expected to live past age 5.
More than 20 years later, Broadbent has done more than just survive. By the time she was a teenager, Broadbent had appeared on Oprah, 20/20, and Good Morning America and had been featured in The New York Times, People, Essence, National Geographic, and more.
Ever the overachiever, Broadbent stole the spotlight at the 1996 Republican National Convention, where she read an original poem. “I am the future, and I have AIDS,” Hydeia proclaimed before thousands of delegates and millions of TV viewers. “I can do anything I put my mind to. I am the next doctor. I am the next lawyer. I am the next Maya Angelou. I might even be the first woman president.… You can’t crush my dream. I am the future, and I have AIDS.”
These days Broadbent travels the country speaking to audiences about abstinence, safe sex practices, and the importance of knowing your status. In September, Broadbent was a featured speaker at the Magic Johnson Foundation and California African American Museum’s ERASE HIV Youth Summit (ERASE stands for Empowering and Reinforcing Awareness of Students Through Education), which engages high school students in open, accessible dialogue about the facts, risks, myths, and stigma associated with HIV.
Broadbent enjoys speaking to young people but doesn’t pull any punches about the reality of living with HIV. While advances in medical treatments have allowed Broadbent to live a full and largely healthy life, she wants young people to understand that living with HIV is not as simple as taking one daily pill, which she says is a common misconception.
“I always explain to youth that even though I was born with HIV, if they don’t make wise choices, they can contract it,” Broadbent says. “I talk about the fact that I almost died, being an inpatient, and how much medication I have to take.”
Educating young people is especially important to Broadbent, who worries that as the AIDS epidemic has evolved, educators have become complacent.
“I think that we’ve forgotten to really put the fear in HIV/AIDS awareness, so many just act like it isn’t a big deal anymore,” she says. “People think that maybe their education or how much money they make can prevent them from contracting HIV, and I try to say, it can happen to anyone if you’re not wise about your body, and if you don’t talk to your sexual partners about HIV.”
While Broadbent has a penchant for speaking with youth, she has a critical message for parents: “Please talk to young people about HIV/AIDS because there’s so many kids who don’t even really know what it is. They don’t even know they’re at risk. I just want people to realize that this is a people’s disease, and it can happen to anyone, anytime.”
Catch Broadbent on Oprah: Where Are They Now? on Friday Jan. 17 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.