Ryan White, Who Died of AIDS at 18, Would Have Turned 50 Today: 'He Made the World Better'

·5 min read
Ryan White, adolescent AIDS sufferer, whose ostracism at school brought a lot of positive attention to people w. AIDS. (Photo by Kim Komenich/Getty Images)
Ryan White, adolescent AIDS sufferer, whose ostracism at school brought a lot of positive attention to people w. AIDS. (Photo by Kim Komenich/Getty Images)

Kim Komenich/Getty Ryan White

The world is remembering Ryan White on what would've been his 50th birthday.

White was a hemophiliac who was diagnosed with AIDS in December 1984 following a blood transfusion, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).

The teen — who was from Kokomo, Indiana — was given six months to live at the time of his diagnosis, but went on to live another five and a half years as he fought AIDS-related discrimination in his community and became a voice for AIDS awareness around the nation.

Just one month before his high school graduation, White died in April 1990 at age 18.

In honor of what would've been his 50th birthday on Monday, which took place five days after World AIDS Day, White was remembered on social media for the massive impact he made on the world.

"Ryan White would have been 50 today. He made the world better for people with HIV," the advocacy organization, RiseUpToHIV, wrote in a post on Instagram.

circa 1989: American AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) activist Ryan White (1971 - 1990). Born with haemophilia he accidentally contracted the AIDS virus during medical treatment. His legal struggle to continue studying at public school made national headlines. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
circa 1989: American AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) activist Ryan White (1971 - 1990). Born with haemophilia he accidentally contracted the AIDS virus during medical treatment. His legal struggle to continue studying at public school made national headlines. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

MPI/Getty Ryan White

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"Ryan White is not alive to celebrate his 50th birthday, Dec. 6," the organization wrote. "But thousands of people living with HIV crossed the half-century mark recently. They might not realize it, but most of them have been helped in some way by Ryan."

"Along with mom Jeanne White-Ginder and HIV activists across the country, Ryan achieved the unthinkable before his untimely passing in 1990 at 18," they added. "He put a human face on HIV, reduced the stigma of the diagnosis, and changed the world, starting with the U.S."

The Children's Museum in Indianapolis, which has a room inside their Power of Children exhibit to honor White, also paid tribute to his "legacy of courage & compassion."

"One of his biggest goals was to live normally & help others with HIV/AIDS live normal lives," they wrote.

(Original Caption) Kokomo, Indiana: Ryan white looks at his math book as he listens on phone connected to his class at school 8/26. His mother, Jeanna, looks on in the background, in Ryan's room at home. The Western Schools Corp. set up the system after barring Ryan from classroom because he suffers from AIDS.
(Original Caption) Kokomo, Indiana: Ryan white looks at his math book as he listens on phone connected to his class at school 8/26. His mother, Jeanna, looks on in the background, in Ryan's room at home. The Western Schools Corp. set up the system after barring Ryan from classroom because he suffers from AIDS.

Bettmann/Getty Ryan White with his mother Jeanne

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In another tribute, Avita Pharmacy — a national pharmacy services organization — reflected on his "courage and advocacy."

"Months after his death, Congress passed the Ryan White CARE Act which provided more than $2 billion to help develop, improve, and maintain accessible and affordable systems of diagnosis, care, and treatment for those most at risk of HIV/AIDS," they wrote.

""As a result of these services, 87.1 percent of Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program patients receiving HIV medical care are virally suppressed," Avita Pharmacy added. "We are forever grateful for Ryan's courage and advocacy which has impacted the lives of so many. Happy birthday, Ryan White."

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White became a symbol of hope during a time when fear and misconceptions about AIDS were prevalent in the United States.

Following his diagnosis in 1984, fearful Kokomo authorities banned him from his middle school, PEOPLE previously reported. His mom sued to have him reinstated, while his family, including his little sister Andrea, were ostracized in the community.

Ryan White and Elton John
Ryan White and Elton John

L. Cohen/WireImage Ryan White and Elton John

After a nine-month court battle, White returned to school, where obscenities were spray-painted inside his locker and students scattered when they saw him coming down the corridor.

"Why were they so scared?" White wrote at one point during his health battle, per PEOPLE's previous reporting. "Maybe it was because I wasn't that different from everyone else. I wasn't gay; I wasn't into drugs. I was just another kid from Kokomo…. Maybe that made me even more of a goblin."

While he fought the discrimination, White became the object of national admiration, championed by a number of celebrities, including Elton John.

John's friendship with the teen was so profound that he served as a pallbearer at White's funeral, and later revealed in Oct. 2019 that White's death inspired him to get sober.

"When he died, being there in Indianapolis and coming back to the hotel and complaining about the wallpaper, the décor in the room," John shared on Today at the time. "[I'm] thinking, 'You are the most ungrateful little bastard. You complain about everything. This boy has never complained about contracting HIV and AIDS from a blood transfusion. He's never complained, he's only encouraged people to get tested.' "

"I could have been one of them," John, now 74, added. "Of course, I could have become HIV positive; I was very lucky. I was blessed and I always thought it was for the reason, when I got sober, that I would give something back."

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Four months after White's death, Congress passed the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act, which sought funding to improve the availability of care for low-income, uninsured and under-insured victims of AIDS and their families.

His legacy is still felt today, with his mom telling NBC affiliate WTHR in April 2020 — the 30th anniversary of White's death — that her son was passionate about educating others.

"No matter how upset I was at everybody and people and the things people were saying, he was always turning the other cheek and saying, 'Mom, that's why we have to educate people,'" White-Ginder recalled to the outlet. "We want to tell Ryan's story, we want to educate people about bullying, [because] I think [that] is what Ryan would have wanted."

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