Below she writes exclusively to ESSENCE.com about the importance of today, World AIDS Day.
Today is World AIDS Day, and this year it offers us an opportunity to reflect on all of the progress made in the fight against HIV/AIDS over the past 30 years and look ahead to what can still be done.
Despite major advances since the early days of the AIDS epidemic and the first diagnosis 30 years ago, the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control indicate that approximately 56,300 new infections occur each year in the U.S. alone. In fact, every nine and a half minutes, someone is infected with HIV.
As I look back, it is hard for me to believe that it was thirty years ago that I made my Broadway debut in the iconic musical, "Dreamgirls." It was December 20th 1981 and December 2011 marks thirty years of "Dreamgirls" and AIDS in America. Thirty years ago gay men up and down Broadway just started dropping dead of a mystery disease. Friends and cast members just got sick and died. They were sick today and dead tomorrow. Then the deadly silence set in because nobody wanted to talk about it, much less do anything about it. Thirty years ago death and silence went hand in hand.
This year for World AIDS Day, I will remember the many friends I lost thirty years ago by attending the world premiere of Home at Ailey’s New York City Center Season to see the winning photos and essays from the “Fight HIV Your Way” contest literally move through dance. The brave people that told their story through a photo and essay serve an important role in helping to reduce the stigma that many people living with HIV continue to face. Visit www.FightHIVYourWay.com for more information on the contest and to see the winning photos and essays that inspired Home.
I know from my experience on the stage that the performing arts can be vital in shedding light and bringing to life the real stories of those touched by HIV and that is why as an artist I will also be performing my critically acclaimed one woman show "Sometimes I Cry" in Buffalo, N.Y. on Dec. 2nd to provide another artistic platform to highlight the personal stories and struggles of real women touched by HIV/AIDS. Visit www.thedivafoundation.org for more information. We must all continue to help raise awareness about HIV/AIDS among the public and inspire people impacted by the disease to continue their fight.
Thirty years ago on Broadway, AIDS was killing my friends in silence and shame. Thirty years later AIDS is still killing people around the world in silence and shame with stigma still holding them hostage. Not to mention discrimination, homophobia, sexism, criminalization, deportation and bodily harm. It was gay men thirty years ago, but it includes women and children now.
AIDS affects us all and we need to get more people tested and connected to CARE and TREATMENT quickly. The earlier people become aware of their HIV status the better it is for them and their community. Spread love not the disease!
I will never forget what happened thirty years ago.
Award winning actress, Sheryl Lee Ralph is a passionate AIDS activist; she is also the producer and creator of the critically acclaimed DIVAS Simply Singing! After twenty one years, DIVAS is the longest consecutive running musical AIDS benefit in America, boasting such talents as Patti LaBelle, Stacey “Fergie” Ferguson, Miss Nancy Wilson, Melissa Manchester, Natalie Cole, Raven-Symone and Chaka Khan to name a few. Ms. Ralph is the Founding Director of the DIVA (Divinely Inspired Victoriously Aware) Foundation 501(C)3 which she created in memory of the many friends she had lost to HIV/AIDS. Ms. Ralph has added the critically acclaimed one-woman show Sometimes I Cry, written, directed and performed by Ralph herself, about the lives, loves, and losses of women infected and affected by HIV/AIDS to her list of outstanding credits. Believing that testing is important, Ms. Ralph and husband Senator Vincent Hughes, Appropriations Chair. D/PA established, www.testtogether.org in an effort to encourage couples to get tested for HIV/AIDS. Rich in creativity and spirit, Sheryl Lee Ralph was awarded The Red Ribbon Award for her unique use of the arts in raising HIV/AIDS awareness. thedivafoundation.org