Diva Takes a Stand Against HIV/AIDS Ignorance

Q+A with Sheryl Lee Ralph, actress and singer

How did it feel to receive the first Red Ribbon Leadership Award at the United Nations on World AIDS Day in 2005?

You know something? It felt sad. It felt sad to look back over my involvement of 20 years and have to acknowledge that this disease that affects us all has gotten to such a crisis point in so many communities. Because it never had to get this far.

But we as human beings decided that some of us could set ourselves above others, acknowledge ourselves to be better than others, and so they should suffer, and because of that action we're now all suffering. You know, it's not a good position we're in as human beings.

And very soon HIV will be only one virus that's wiping out a whole lot of people around the world. Everybody's talking about this bird flu that's coming next. So it's like, "Wow, we didn't have to let this happen. But we did it to ourselves." And I have to say that bugs me a bit. So to be awarded for work that should have been done, and done earlier and done by many other people too, that's hard.

Of course, I laughed and joked about it and said, "Why can't it be for something absolutely worthless -- like a Globe or an Emmy or something like that?" Not for work that I couldn't help doing as a human being.

Many people think your AIDS advocacy and fund-raising began with the annual spectacular, Divas Simply Singing!, but actually your work goes back almost to the very start of the epidemic.

When I was on Broadway doing Dreamgirls, there was this silent disease going around called GRID [Gay Related Immune Disorder]. And you know, nobody wanted to talk about it. It was like, "Shhh ... the gay men's cancer," and nobody wanted to even whisper about it, let alone raise their voice. And these guys are all of a sudden just dropping dead from this secret disease. I think that's what really caught my heart about the whole thing.

Where did you find the strength or courage to speak up about a disease that so many people were terrified and ashamed of?

I honestly don't know. But I so believed that my friends, the ones that died early on, were good people, kind people, and it made absolutely no difference what their sexual orientation was. What mattered was the fact that they were great people -- the kind who could help you with your attitude and your wardrobe choices with a look! You know? And I thought it was terrible for people to dismiss their having lived like it was some sort of a dirty shame because of this disease. Something about that was never right for me. I just didn't like that.

During the years when you were so involved in fighting this disease that was still considered a gay disease, did it ever occur to you that it would overtake the African-American community in the way that it has?

I don't think I really knew that until about maybe six years ago. I remember very clearly doing Divas in 2000, and as I set foot on stage, I was suddenly like, "Whoa! I represent one of the fastest-growing groups affected by this disease -- women, especially black women."

How did that change the way that you felt about your AIDS advocacy?

I'll never forget one time I stood onstage and I said, "If sex could be death for men, then women cannot be far behind." And I tell you, that was one of the times that I received hate mail -- in talking about that. And people told me that I was crazy, and what am I talking about, and this is not my fight, not my disease, and what do I mean, "Women couldn't be far behind." You know? So.

How does it feel, after all these years and all this work, seeing that the African-American community now has to deal with the devastation of AIDS, too?

Very difficult. Because what I experience now is the same sort of silence that I heard 20 years ago, when guys were dying on Broadway. It's the same silence. The same unwillingness to talk openly about this disease. It was not until gay people came together and found union as a group that things started to change. They marched on Washington in numbers that people didn't want to believe, just like the Million Man March -- people didn't want to believe that those numbers could come together and speak up and out for change. But that change actually took place.

Do you see that same kind of coming together taking place among African Americans?

Little by little. It is slow, let me tell you. I've just written a piece called Sometimes I Cry, which is stories of women infected and affected by HIV. And in this day, at this time, the response I get from people each and every time I perform it -- you would believe they never knew, they never heard of it, because their stories have not been told and their voices have not been used to speak up and out about their own experience. And that's hard.

What is the most critical AIDS issue facing the African-American community?

Ignorance and stigma. Every time I perform "Sometimes I Cry," you would be amazed at what people do not know about this disease. Sometimes I think, "How could they not know?" But the more we concentrate on prevention, the more we're starting to see bits and bits of change, which is a good thing.

It's a proven thing -- even if people try to say it's not true -- if you really use a condom properly, each time, every time, you also lower the rate of infection. Is it perfect? No. But a condom does work, and prevention is better than cure.

Who needs to step up to the plate to break the silence?

I think it's a fact that when leaders in the community speak up and out in support of others, no matter who they are, we see change take place. So I think more people who are able and willing to speak up need to speak up.

Do you see in your own church openness to HIV/AIDS or an AIDS ministry?

Oh, absolutely. In fact, through the Diva Foundation we just gave a donation to help the church get it up and running, because I was just so appreciative of the fact that they were having the conversation about it. And this is a much older congregation than I attend, and we're really looking for young people to come to the church, so I was really happy that the older leaders in the church decided to take it on.

This year your Diva Foundation also gave major proceeds to the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and to the Black AIDS Institute, two of the most activist organizations at work out on the frontlines, making demands, speaking very loudly.

Thank you so much for acknowledging that. I really appreciate that. Because you know sometimes there becomes a struggle and some people say, "Well, no, this person should get it, or that group should get it." And I'm like, "You know what people? Let us stay on point. Let us make sure that the people who need the help get the help the best way possible." And those two groups really are out on the frontlines, so that's how I made that choice.

What are your fears and hopes for the next generation of African Americans as they face the risks of HIV?

My fear is that it will continue the way it is. That is my greatest fear. My hope is that we can become somewhat enlightened, because I have two children. I'm a mother, and I hope when they come into their whole sexual life and well-being, that it does not kill them.

It seems that a lot of parents don't want to think of their children having sex ...

Oh come on, please, it's like not thinking about yourself having sex. I know that I have it and enjoy it, so why would I want to think that my children wouldn't have it and enjoy it when they get older and responsible? It's like saying, "Let's not eat." Well, I like food.

At some point children grow up, and they have to have sex. It's natural. God hard-wired us that way.

What do you make of the situation of young African-American girls getting infected at such high rates?

I think they've been so seduced by things like video 'hos and what they see on TV. Seduced into thinking that certain behavior is going to get them ahead. And all it's gotten some of them is a death sentence.

In terms of HIV education for kids, what do you think is the best policy?

Honesty. You know what? I would love to tell children to be totally abstinent. But I had a lot of friends who weren't, so I think about stuff like that. So, honesty -- be upfront.

Click here to e-mail Sheryl Lee Ralph. To hear or read Sheryl's speech at the U.S. Conference on AIDS in 2007, click here.

Sheryl Lee Ralph

About Sheryl Lee Ralph

Among so many celebrity AIDS advocates over so many years, Ralph was singled out last World AIDS Day when she received the United Nation's first-ever Red Ribbon Leadership Award in honor of her outstanding and outspoken activism since the beginning of the epidemic. As an actress and singer, Ralph got her big break starring in the 1982 Broadway classic, Dreamgirls, and lent her newfound fame to garner support for gay men affected by the then-mysterious disease GRID, soon to be known as AIDS. In 1990 she created the critically acclaimed Divas Simply Singing!, an evening of song and entertainment headlined by top women performers that became one of Hollywood's most successful annual AIDS fundraisers.

As the "face of AIDS" changed from white and gay to black and female, Ralph has only intensified her advocacy. Her one-woman show, Sometimes I Cry: The Loves, Lives and Losses of Women Infected and Affected by HIV/AIDS, which she wrote based on her work with women PWAs and their advocates, will open Thursday, March 16, at the Highways Performance Space in Los Angeles (For tickets, call 310-315-1459.) She can also be seen in her "day job" in the Showtime series, Barbershop, starring as a post-op transsexual.