The Life and Death of Ryan White

AIDS and Inequality in America

By Paul M. Renfro

The Life and Death of Ryan White

Approx. 216 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 18 halftones, 3 maps, notes

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-8085-9
    Published: October 2024
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-8084-2
    Published: October 2024

Gender and American Culture

Paperback Available October 2024, but pre-order your copy today!

Buy this Book

For Professors:
Free E-Exam Copies

To purchase online via an independent bookstore, visit
In the 1980s, as HIV/AIDS ravaged queer communities and communities of color in the United States and beyond, a straight white teenager named Ryan White emerged as the face of the epidemic. Diagnosed with hemophilia at birth, Ryan contracted HIV through contaminated blood products. In 1985, he became a household name after he was barred from attending his Indiana middle school. As Ryan appeared on nightly news broadcasts and graced the covers of popular magazines, he was embraced by music icons and well-known athletes, achieving a curious kind of stardom. Analyzing his struggle and celebrity, Paul M. Renfro’s powerful biography grapples with the contested meanings of Ryan’s life, death, and afterlives.

As Renfro argues, Ryan’s fight to attend school forced the American public to reckon with prevailing misconceptions about the AIDS epidemic. Yet his story also reinforced the hierarchies at the heart of the AIDS crisis. Because the "innocent" Ryan had contracted HIV "through no fault of his own," as many put it, his story was sometimes used to blame presumably "guilty" populations for spreading the virus. Reexamining Ryan’s story through this lens, Renfro reveals how the consequences of this stigma continue to pervade policy and cultural understandings of HIV/AIDS today.

About the Author

Paul M. Renfro is associate professor of history at Florida State University and author of Stranger Danger: Family Values, Childhood, and the American Carceral State.
For more information about Paul M. Renfro, visit the Author Page.


"An illuminating addition to AIDS history. Renfro reveals how the personal charisma and resiliency Ryan White showed in his fight for life was used to create a false division between so-called innocent and guilty people with AIDS, and how this, in turn, furthered cliches about white working-class people and homophobia. Thoughtful and helpful in understanding how standing tropes of stigma were created and maintained."—Sarah Schulman, author of Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987–1993

“For those of us who lived through or study the early AIDS epidemic, Ryan White looms large. This compelling and engaging book contends with and adds depth to his familiar story. A book of great consequence."—Katie Batza, author of Before AIDS: Gay Health Politics in the 1970s

"Perhaps the best-known person with AIDS in the United States, Ryan White occupies a complicated place in the history of the AIDS epidemic. In this deeply researched account, Paul Renfro brings to light how White's story has been politicized to undermine the ongoing fight against AIDS."—Dan Royles, author of To Make the Wounded Whole: The African American Struggle against HIV/AIDS