"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."
-Written by Jeanne Pisano and Dianne Reeves
Somehow that lyric just resonates with me, "I know where my voice belongs!" Because for the past twenty five years I have been speaking up and out about HIV/AIDS. WHY? Well, let's go back twenty seven years. On December 20th, 1981, I opened on Broadway in what has become the iconic musical of the 80's, 'Dreamgirls.'
Dreamgirls was the best and worst of all times for me. The best of course was being an original Dreamgirl, creating the role of Deena Jones, being nominated for the prestigious Tony Award (and a list of others) as Best Actress, sharing the stage each and every night with some of the most talented people of a generation including my dear friends Loretta Devine and Jenifer Holiday.
It was such an exciting, magical time. And night after night, audiences stood to their feet, showering us with the kind of applause that let you know that you were loved, really, truly loved. You couldn't get a cab home once the curtain came down, but that's another story for another day. This was one of the best times in my life!
And in the middle of those good times came the worst. The worst was when men, gay men up and down Broadway just started dropping dead of a mystery disease. They died one right after the other. 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. No "cocktail" mixture of pills to ward off one infectious disease or the other. They just got sick and they 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 seemed to go hand in hand and silently that mysterious disease, AIDS, 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 couldn't cross one more name out of my address book.
It was a death storm and I stood witness to such an ugly time in America. A time when good people, kind people, people of every faith and belief took comfort in passing judgment and pointing fingers at people who suffered beyond belief. People disowned and abandoned their sick and dying children, ignoring them in their time of need. They easily turned their backs on their own flesh and blood when they needed them most!
Over twenty five years into this disease, I know that we have come so far with the development of new medications but I also know we have so much farther to go because I now stand witness as HIV cripples our communities and the immune systems of human beings allowing opportunistic infections to take place -- infections that include stigma, shame and silence.
After all these years I am shocked as to how little people know or want to know about HIV/AIDS. How people don't know that HIV/AIDS killed more than 3,000,000 last year, and every year, it kills more people than it did the year before. People still want to believe that AIDS a "gay" disease absolutely refusing to acknowledge the fact that the new number one way to transmit HIV is unprotected heterosexual sex. That's right, male to female sex. And I could go on with facts that would make you say "What the ?!"
As Dreamgirls opens at the Apollo in Harlem for yet another national tour, every time the show is performed, The Dreams represent one of the fastest growing groups of people in America to become infected with HIV -- young people. Every hour, two young Americans between ages 13 and 24 are infected with HIV. Every 16 seconds a woman is infected with HIV. Every 29 seconds a woman dies from AIDS-related illness.
As an original Dreamgirl, I cared to speak up about HIV/AIDS because AIDS was killing my friends in silence and shame. It was gay men then, black women and young people now and the silence remains deadly. "I know where my voice belongs" and we have been silent for too long and silence will not protect us. Silence is killing us quicker than the disease.
Today is December 1st, World AIDS Day and "I know where my voice belongs", " And I am Telling You" that in just "One Night Only", as you slept last night; over five thousand people became infected with HIV. I hope one of them wasn't you. AIDS really does affects us all!