I have been asked repeatedly why have I remained committed to speaking up and out about HIV/AIDS. WHY? Well, let’s go back about 30 years. On December 20th, 1981, I opened on Broadway in Dreamgirls, which has become the iconic musical of the ’80s. Dreamgirls was the best and worst of all times for me. The best was being an original Dreamgirl, creating the role of Deena Jones, being nominated for the prestigious Tony Award as Best Actress, sharing the stage each and every night with Loretta Devine, Debbie Burrell and Jennifer Holiday.
It was such an exciting, magical time. Especially the month we graced the cover of EBONY. We knew we had made it then!
The worst was when men, gay men up and down Broadway, started dropping dead of a mystery disease. It was frightening. Our friends and cast members just got sick and died. There was no dying process. They got sick. They died.
Death and silence went hand in hand, and silently that mysterious disease blew out the flame of life on Broadway like candles on a birthday cake. Funeral after funeral, memorial after memorial. It got to the point where I just couldn’t cross one more name out of my address book.
In the midst of one of the happiest times of my life, I stood witness to such an ugly time in America. A time when good people, kind people, even religious people took comfort in passing judgment and pointing fingers at them and those people, saying, “That’s what they get. That’s what they deserve.” Such an ugly time when people disowned and abandoned their sick and dying children. Ignoring them in their time of need. Their own flesh and blood!
We are all suffering now. Suffering from our silence, suffering from denial, suffering from ignorance.
Now, 25 years later, you’d be surprised how little people know about HIV/AIDS. Many don’t know that HIV is the virus and AIDS is the disease. Many still want to believe that AIDS is a “gay” disease of little importance to the general population. Many refuse to acknowledge that the No. 1 way to transmit the disease is unprotected heterosexual sex.
We have been silent for too long. Silence will not protect us, will not save us, will not heal us. We as a race of people cannot let our denial be deeper than our graves. We must break the wall of silence that is killing so many of us.
Twenty-five years ago, I dared to fight the good fight against HIV/AIDS because AIDS was killing people in silence and shame. I care now because AIDS is still killing people in silence and shame. It was gay men then, Black women now–and the silence remains deadly. Every 16 seconds a woman is infected with HIV. Every 29 seconds a woman dies from AIDS-related illness.
The numbers of AIDS deaths globally and the rate of HIV infection right here at home in the United States is staggering. We must find our voices and Speak Up!
We must Speak Up for our dreams and all we aspire to be in the midst of this pandemic. We must Speak Up for those who have chosen to live and not die!
We must Speak Up for those who don’t know they need to be spoken up for!
Harriet Tubman said it best: “I freed lots of slaves and I would have freed lots more had they known they were slaves.”
So I encourage you to get involved and get tested to know your status. Use condoms each and every time you have sex. Get the facts and talk to your children, age appropriately. You would be surprised about the choices they would make if you talked to them openly and honestly. Discuss abstinence and sexual responsibility.
Find your voice and speak up because tar too many of us are needlessly HIV-positive. In this war against HIV/AIDS, we cannot afford to lose the battle!
I am a woman, I am an artist, and I know where my voice belongs!
Sheryl Lee Ralph is an entertainer and thunder of the DIVA Foundation, which uses entertainment to inform, educate and erase the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS.