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Madonna Educates a Generation about AIDS

By Rodger Streitmatter
Media Matters

Madonna's recent decision to withdraw the video that was to accompany her soon-to-be released album, American Life, 'reminded me of one of the Queen of Pop's contributions that today is remembered as little more than a "footnote" in her career-if even that.

Since the moment the "tarted-up floozy," as Newsweek described her, erupted onto the nation's cultural radar screen in the mid-1980s, she has thrived on controversy. In 2003, the concern is her video's messages about George Bush and the American military at the same time that the United States is fighting in Iraq.

Two decades ago, the concern was AIDS.
During her 20-year career Madonna has played a public role in the fight against AIDS and HIV

The story of Madonna's involvement with the disease begins soon after she left her native Michigan and moved to New York City in 1978. She was only nineteen at the time and had little in the way of financial resources, as her father was unhappy with her decision to drop out of college before she earned her degree. So she was on her own.

Soon after arriving in the Big Apple, she met up with another teenager named Martin Burgoyne who was in a similar position. The gay designer, like Madonna, had plenty of talent but no money.

So the high-energy twosome pooled their meager incomes-hers from working as a hatcheck girl, his from bartending-to rent a small apartment on Manhattan's tough Lower East Side while they each pursued the elusive "big break."

Burgoyne soon became much more than Madonna's roommate, as he provided her with emotional support during a series of traumatic events in her life. When she was raped and again when she became pregnant and had an abortion-apparently on three different occasions-Burgoyne was there for her each time.

During the next few years, not only did Madonna begin to rise to stardom but AIDS emerged as the deadliest sexually transmitted disease in history. She began performing in New York clubs in 1981; the first cases were reported that same year.

People became so frightened that they refused even to be in the same room with an AIDS patient, and an activity as intimate as kissing a person with the condition was absolutely unthinkable, as the medical community was still uncertain about whether the HIV virus could be spread through saliva.

It was in this climate of mass fear that Madonna's friend Martin Burgoyne told her that he had AIDS.

From that moment in the summer of 1986 until he died late that year, she supported him both emotionally and financially.

Even though the ambitious young singer was, during this crucial stage of her career, doing everything in her power to make the leap from being merely a star to being one of a handful of superstars, she talked to her former roommate by telephone at least once a day and visited him several times a week-never hesitating to kiss him on the lips.

She also took full responsibility for Burgoyne's expenses, providing more than $100,000 to cover his medical bills and paying the rent on the new apartment where she moved him so he could be closer to St. Vincent's Hospital where he was being treated.

Madonna's commitment soon shifted from the private support of a friend to the public role of one of the country's most dedicated AIDS educators.

Her initial step was to become one of the first stars who was willing to talk with reporters about having a relationship with a victim of the disease.

"I cried like a baby when Martin told me," one newspaper story quoted her as saying. "I still cry when I think about it."

But, in her next breath, she went on to insist that-fear and stigma be damned-friends of AIDS patients should stand by them.

"I'll stick by Martin no matter what happens," she told the newspaper. "He was there for me when I needed him, and I'm going to be there for him now that he needs me."

Madonna's unflagging support was particularly challenging because of another man who had ascended into a major role in her life: Sean Penn.

She had met the young actor during the taping of her "Material Girl" music video in February 1985, and they had become husband and wife a mere six months later.

Although the marriage was plagued with a variety of problems including Penn's moodiness and hot temper, Madonna's commitment to Burgoyne added to the difficulties.

"It's ironic that a gay guy has come between macho Sean and his sexy, feminine wife," one friend told a reporter. "It sickens him that Madonna wants to continue her longtime friendship with a gay man who has AIDS."

The singer herself was quoted as saying, "Sean is scared I might pick up the virus. He keeps insisting that it's possible because not that much is known about AIDS. I tell him to grow up."

On several occasions, Madonna's AIDS activism led to conflicts with her husband. When she modeled in a fund-raising auction at Barney's department store and again when she attended another benefit specifically for Burgoyne, Penn refused to accompany her-both incidents were reported in the National Enquirer.

One very public confrontation played out on the lot of Universal Studios. According to published accounts, Penn screamed at his wife, "You're more concerned about your damn friends than you are about me. You spend more time worrying about your friends with AIDS!"

Madonna was undeterred.

She continued to support Burgoyne, even to the point that she purchased experimental drugs from Mexico for him. Her commitment never waned, and she was holding her friend's hand when he died in December 1986, at the age of twenty-three.

In the wake of her friend's death, Madonna focused on a second form of AIDS activism by encouraging her fans to be sexually responsible.

One of the innovative features of her 1987 Who's That Girl tour was incorporating multimedia components into the productions in the form of gigantic video screens that towered over her. The most memorable message to flash on those multi-story panels came in two dramatic words that no other musician had ever had either the will or the courage to mention, much less communicate so dramatically: "SAFE SEX."

She followed that special-effects extravaganza with other cautionary messages.

On dozens of occasions, she gave concert audiences practical advice about avoiding the HIV virus by using condoms, saying-both whimsically and directly: "Hold on, don't be silly. / Put a rubber on your willy!"

During one Madison Square Garden fund-raising event, she talked emotionally about the disease that killed Burgoyne, including the statement: "AIDS is a painful and mysterious disease that continues to elude us."

And the lyrics she wrote for the ballad "In This Life" expressed her continuing sadness from the loss of her young friend. "He was only twenty-three / Gone before he had his time," she began and then moved into the chorus, "In this life, I loved you most of all / Now you're gone and I have to ask myself / What for?"

At the same time that Madonna increased AIDS awareness at a level of public prominence that was matched by few-if any-other celebrities, she also made significant financial contributions to the effort to fight the disease.

It is impossible to know exactly how much money the superstar has given to the battle for a cure because many of her donations have been anonymous, but even a conservative estimate places the figure at more than $5 million.

Many people have strong opinions-not all of them good-about Madonna's music as well as her motivations for taking certain actions and for sending certain messages during her career.

But no matter what a person's feelings toward the megastar might be, we should have nothing but praise for her work as an AIDS activist.

During a time when the disease was ravaging the American population, this highly influential celebrity communicated important information to her fans-most of whom were, at that stage of her career, teenagers.

Indeed, by sending the messages and taking the actions that she did, this "tarted-up floozy" may well have saved the lives of an untold number of her followers.
Rodger Streitmatter, Ph.D. is a member of the School of Communication faculty at American University in Washington, D.C. His latest book, Voices of Revolution: The Dissident Press in America has recently been published by Columbia University Press. He is also the author of Unspeakable: The Rise of the Gay & Lesbian Press in America (Faber & Faber, 1995) and Raising Her Voice: African American Women Journalists Who Changed History (The University Press of Kentucky, 1994)
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