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Sheryl Lee Ralph

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Thirty Years of Dreamgirls and AIDS in America

Posted: 06/14/11 11:30 AM ET

"I am an endangered species but I sing no victim song. I am a woman, I am an artist and I know where my voice belongs." - Jeanne Pisano and Dianne Reeves

December 20th 1981 I made my Broadway debut in what has become one of the iconic musicals of the 80s, Dreamgirls. As I look back, it is hard for me to believe that it was thirty years ago just as it is hard for me to believe that June 5th, 2011 marks thirty years of AIDS in America. Thirty years of Dreamgirls and AIDS and this is where my story begins.

Dreamgirls was the best and worst of all times for me. As a young woman full of dreams herself, the best was being an original Dream Girl, creating the role of Deena Jones, being nominated for the prestigious Antoinette Perry Award, the Tony for Best Actress. Win or lose, I would forever be referred to as "Tony nominated Actress, Sheryl Lee Ralph." Wonderful!

Night after magical night, The Dreams brought audiences to their feet in thunderous applause letting us know that we were loved, really, truly, deeply loved. You couldn't get a cab once the curtain came down, but that's another story. This was one of the best times in my life and in the middle of it came the worst.

The worst was when men, gay men of every race, color and class, up and down Broadway just started dropping dead of a mysterious disease. It was frightening. Friends and cast members just got sick and died. They were sick today and dead tomorrow. They got sick, some of them developed those strange purple marks and they died. There was no dying process like the one we have become accustomed to nowadays. They just got sick and died. Then the deadly silence would set in because nobody wanted to talk about it, much less do anything about that disease, that shhhhh, gay disease. The silence was deafening.

Death and silence went hand in hand and at times it seemed to me that the silence was killing people quicker than the disease. Every night I was on stage in one of the greatest musicals ever written but the real life show was devastating as I stood witness to such an ugly time in America. I watched as good people, kind people, people of all religions, faiths and beliefs took comfort in passing judgment and pointing fingers at they, them and those people. Saying, "That's what they get. That's what they deserve. GOD will take care of them!"

Hospitals were unkind. There were no rooms for many of the sick and dying. You would find them stretched out on a gurney, pushed up against a wall out in the hallway, dying for help. But, there was no help for them! Nurses and hospital administrators were hostile and afraid and they wore their fear like armor! They were afraid of those strange purple marks, afraid of it all. Some doctors even refused to give treatment.

Thirty years ago, we stood idly by as gay people suffered and died. I was taught in church, "If one of us suffers, we all suffer." And we are all suffering now, suffering from our silence, suffering from denial, suffering from inhumanity because thirty years later every time Dreamgirls is performed or the film is shown, The Dreams, (young women) represent one of the fastest growing groups of people in America to become infected with HIV, women, especially women of color.

After thirty years HIV/AIDS is fast becoming a woman's disease and still silence equals death. Thirty years of information and activism and I am still shocked as I travel across the country at how little women and young women know about the risk they take in having unprotected sex. So many women don't know that the #1 way to transmit the disease is unprotected heterosexual sex, male to female sex. How many women don't know the basics like, HIV/AIDS is not just one disease but two very different ones. HIV is the virus and AIDS is the disease. And the growing numbers of women who have never been tested for HIV/AIDS because of the deadly stigma still associated to the disease is staggering. So, let me be clear ladies, DO NOT walk around with a time bomb in your vagina. Get tested! The earlier you get into treatment if you are positive, the better quality of life you are likely to lead.

And here are some facts, women comprise the fastest-growing population of new HIV infections in the U.S. women are 8 times more likely than men to contract HIV from one act of intercourse. Women are becoming increasingly affected by HIV -- about 47% of the 34.7 million adults living with HIV or AIDS worldwide are women. 1,000,000 Americans are infected with HIV and most of them don't know it. Don't let one of them be you.

In the silence of AIDS I found my voice as a young woman 30 years ago on the Broadway stage and have been asked over and over why I have remained so deeply committed to speaking up and out about HIV/AIDS. Why do I take the time to raise funds and awareness? Why do I care? I care because I am human. I care because I am a woman and there but for the grace of God go I."