Michael Johnson was born on December 11, 1991. He is a former college wrestler, fitness professional and trainer, and house ball performer known on social media as Tiger Mandingo. Johnson’s high profile arrest and conviction on charges he knowingly transmitted HIV turned a spotlight on controversial HIV laws that make it a crime for HIV-positive people to have sex without first disclosing that they have the virus.
Michael Lewis Johnson is a native of Indianapolis, Indiana, the youngest of five sons born to Tracy Johnson. He didn’t know his father, and was diagnosed with dyslexia at a young age, enrolling in special education classes through grade school and high school. Johnson said he always identified as gay, but his mom was “afraid for him” and urged her son to stay in the closet because he was too young. Johnson recalled that in all of his years of health education (even in college where he was pursuing a physical education teaching career), he never had a class mention homosexuality, which he took to mean that “it’s wrong to be gay.”
Johnson knew from a young age that his best shot for success despite a learning disability was through athletics. While he tried other sports, he enjoyed wrestling, saying that unlike “a team sport, you can’t point the finger at another person…you can only point the finger at yourself.” By high school, Johnson set his sights on a successful wrestling career that would get him into college, the Olympics, and a career in professional wrestling.
As a teenager, Johnson presented as straight, becoming “Tiger” the wrestler after he started wearing what he calls his “lucky tiger shirt” to matches. But he also started publicly exploring his identity as a gay man by walking in ballroom drag house balls in Indianapolis. Joining the House of Mizrahi, he was very “butch” and walked a style known as BQ (“Butch Queen”) Body. In the ball era of his life, Tiger became Tiger Mandingo.
While Johnson kept Tiger Mandingo and his ballroom wins on the DL, he became quite successful in the wrestling world. He won the Indiana State Wrestling Championship in 2010, his senior year of high school. His high school coach later praised him as a “dream,” telling a reporter, “From the time that I met Michael, I didn’t think I could have a more dedicated and committed wrestler.”
Some of the top schools in the Midwest wanted Johnson on their wrestling teams, but his learning disabilities got in the way of him meeting minimum academic requirements. He was accepted at Lincoln Junior College in Lincoln, Illinois, where he earned an associate’s degree and came in first place at the National Junior Wrestling Championships in 2012. He was then recruited to wrestle for Lindenwood University, a private, coeducational, liberal arts university located in the St. Louis suburb of St. Charles, Missouri. His mother and friends expressed concern that Johnson was accepted on scholarship, even though he could barely read or write.
Johnson was very popular with girls on campus, so many observers, including those on the wrestling team, assumed Johnson was straight. When word got out that Tiger was gay, he wasn’t shunned by the team, but a former teammate said that at least one person on the team didn’t want to practice with Johnson, and no one was volunteering to wrestle with him, either.
Meanwhile, on social media, Johnson presented himself as Tiger Mandingo, later revealing that he was unaware of the history and connotations of the name, believing it stood for “a Black man who is hung.” In a ballroom drag YouTube show called “The Barbecue,” recorded in 2012, Johnson is asked by the hosts, “Tiger Mandingo, what made you choose that name?” He answered, “I heard about the definition of Mandingo,” which he said, “came from Africa, and in Africa, big dick, Mandingo!” He was especially popular with young white male students on the St. Charles campus.
On January 7, 2013, Michael Johnson was diagnosed with HIV, and as is customary, signed a legal form acknowledging that he understood his diagnosis. From this date forward, any time he had sex with someone without disclosing his HIV status, he would have been committing a felony. His mother, Tracy Johnson, later said, “No one told him, ‘Before you sign this legal document, you need to get counsel. This is a legal document, and if you go against this legal document, you can be incarcerated,’ and be given years in the penitentiary if he is dishonest about his medical situation.”
Johnson allegedly continued to have unprotected sex with men he met in chatrooms and on social media. An intimate partner of Johnson’s believed he contracted the HIV virus from him, and went to the authorities. On October 7, 2014, Johnson had a “non-custodial interview” with St. Charles Police, according to the prosecuting attorney’s probable cause statement. He had no lawyer present. Investigators also seized Johnson’s computer, but it was not searched until after a warrant was issued specifically to do so, on November 19. They also seized Johnson’s cell phone, though on an unrecorded date and, once again, without a warrant.
“Michael is very trusting and very naive,” said Meredith Mills, a friend from Indianapolis who met Johnson when her stepson played soccer with him and considers him part of her family. “I’m sure he didn’t know if he was doing anything that was criminal.” The day before Johnson was arrested, it’s unclear if the magnitude of his fate was clear to him, but he posted on his Facebook wall: “I missed up big time but I learn to never miss up again.”
Johnson was arrested on October 10, 2014, after he was pulled out of his class and led away in handcuffs by the St. Charles police. The University immediately expelled him, and news of Johnson’s arrest, coupled with reports of more than 30 videotaped sexual encounters on Johnson’s laptop, quickly made local, national, and international headlines. At the time, Missouri was one of the dozens of states that have HIV criminalization laws, which activists have slammed for being outdated and unfairly targeting Black men.
Johnson was accused not merely of keeping his HIV status to himself, but of willfully lying to his partners, telling them he was HIV-negative before engaging in what the prosecutor would call the most “dangerous” form of sex: ejaculating without a condom into the rectums and mouths of his sex partners.
As his lawyer tried to negotiate a plea deal, the 23-year-old Johnson rejected the idea, even after a friend visited him in jail and begged him to reconsider, and even though Johnson said he had spent months in solitary confinement and was not allowed to attend church. He was innocent, he said, and had confidence in the American criminal justice system.
When the jury was finally selected, it was made up of four white men, seven white women, and a single black female, a retired nurse. Of the 51 potential jurors screened, only the lone retired nurse appeared to be nonwhite, and all identified as straight. During questioning, about half of the would-be jurors said being gay was a “choice.” Only a third agreed that being gay was “not a sin.” No potential juror acknowledged having HIV. All said they believed HIV-positive people who do not tell their sexual partners that they have the virus should be prosecuted. When asked, not a single person said they had any distrust of the police.
No one had shown up to support Michael Johnson. His own mother wasn’t there; she would arrive late and leave before his trial ended. His only ally that morning was his public defender, Heather Donovan, and she stood up in front of the pool of potential jurors and told them that her client was…guilty until proven innocent. Amid groans in the courtroom, the judge, Jon Cunningham, reminded Donovan that she’d meant to say the opposite—that her client was innocent until proven otherwise.
Things continued to get worse for Johnson, who had become one of the most highly publicized targets of America’s controversial HIV laws. As “BuzzFeed” contributor Steven Thrasher stated in his coverage of the trial, “The soft-spoken former university student had shown up to court in a blue shirt and a bright red tie, but standing trial was his black, ejaculating, HIV-positive penis.”
Many prosecutors defend HIV laws as offering just punishment for behavior that can help transmit the virus. But critics say the laws unjustly place all responsibility on the person with the virus—that while Johnson faced up to life in prison, his partners bore no legal liability, even though they all willingly engaged in unprotected sex acts during casual hookups with Tiger.
A Missouri court heard that the former Lindenwood University student continued to have unprotected sex until he was arrested. “He didn’t just fail to disclose his status,” the assistant St. Charles County prosecutor told the jury. “When he was specifically asked if he was clean…he lied.” On his laptop, police found videos of him having unprotected sex with 32 men, two of whom testified against him.
Following a three-day trial, the jury reached a decision after just two hours of deliberation. Johnson was convicted in May 2015 of one felony charge of “knowingly” transmitting HIV to one man, and four charges of exposing four other men to the virus who did not contract it. He was sentenced to thirty years in prison, a longer sentence than average for second-degree murder in Missouri.
While Johnson served his prison term, activists and supporters on the outside were blasting the trial and sentence, including 89 Black gay men who penned a letter to Michael Johnson.
“We write this letter to you, understanding the actions taken against you have come at the expense of your humanity. And we write this letter to you, acknowledging that you are a part of our community. You are our brother and we support you. There are less and less spaces dedicated to Black gay men. And our bodies are being beaten, policed, and pushed into prisons. Yet, we remain steadfast in the belief that our bodies, desires, intimate relationships and communities are not criminal. We are loving, living, and worthy Black people,” they wrote.
The letter went on to state, “We are aware that you have been charged with felony HIV-exposure in Missouri for allegedly not disclosing your HIV-status to your sexual partners. However, we also know that HIV criminalization laws unfairly impact Black people and stigmatize people living with HIV. HIV criminalization laws push people living with HIV further and further away from HIV treatment and care and make HIV prevention efforts more difficult. As Black gay men, we are deeply impacted by HIV; and these laws harm us and damage our relationships and communities.”
In December 2016, a Missouri appeals court found “fundamental unfairness” in Johnson’s original trial, ruling that prosecutors withheld evidence from the judge until the morning of the trial. By withholding evidence, the prosecution “prevented Johnson from preparing a meaningful defense.” The ruling to throw out Johnson’s conviction was upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court four months later.
Prosecutors said they would retry Johnson, but instead agreed to a plea deal that Johnson took in September 2017. He pleaded no contest to one count of knowingly transmitting HIV to one man, and four counts of exposing four others to the virus. He accepted a sentence of ten years, and could be eligible for parole within six to eighteen months. Additionally, because he pleaded to charges under a health statute, he will not be required to register as a sex offender in Missouri, where he’s incarcerated, or Indiana, where he’s from.
At the court hearing, Johnson asked his guards if he could address his friends in the courtroom. “I just want to say thank you all, I appreciate your being here, and I love you,” Johnson stated.
[Special thanks to Akil Patterson and Athlete Ally for their assistance in compiling the original biography, which has been edited for space and updated. Portions were taken from Steven Thrasher’s 2014 “BuzzFeed” story and trial coverage.]