“I Had So Much Shame Around My Attraction” Laverne Cox Talks Banding Together To End Sexual Stigma, HIV/AIDS
More than half of the total number of people living with HIV in the world live in East and Southern Africa, a region that represents just 6.2% of the global population. According to Red.org, more than 400 babies will be born with HIV today alone, and again tomorrow and the next day. And while you may already be aware of the staggering rates of HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa, what you likely don’t know is that it only takes 20 cents per day to give an HIV-positive mother a drug that will save the life of her and her baby.
BAND-AID has partnered with Red, singer Bono’s organization which works with brands to creative products whose profits will go toward the Global Fund to fight AIDS, to make generating that 20 cents a lot easier. And BAND-AID is working with Laverne Cox to help spread the word about how we can all #BandTogether to eliminate HIV/AIDS and the stigmas around sex and sexuality not only in Africa, but right here in the United States. I got a chance to chat with the actress and activist about her involvement with the campaign and when HIV/AIDS really hit home for her. Check out our conversation below.
Brande Victorian (BV): Tell me about the Band Together initiative and why you chose to get involved.
Laverne Cox: I am really honored to be in partnership with BAND-AID and Red for this incredible initiative where they have created these really special red BAND-AIDs –and, course, Red has been partnering with brands since 2006 — to raise money for the global fund specifically to fight HIV and AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa. Folks should know that all they have to do is go to a CVS store or CVS.com, buy some red BAND-AIDS, and the proceeds will go to HIV prevention and HIV education in Sub-Saharan Africa. The purchase of one box of BAND-AIDS can go to a day’s worth of life-saving medication for someone in Sub-Saharan Africa. Isn’t that amazing? For me, I know that I’m so overwhelmed with like, there’s so much going on, how can I make a difference? And it seems insurmountable, all the issues. But one of the misconceptions about HIV/AIDS is that it seems like this insurmountable thing but we can stop the disease. We can stop the spread of HIV/AIDS in our lifetime and this is the beginning of it.
BV: On a recent HIV panel I was a part of we talked about how Black women tend to take care of everyone but themselves and that is part of the reason we’re disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS. Would you say that’s true?
LC: I don’t like to make generalizations about any group of people, but I know that a lot of Black women in my life certainly fall in the category of I have to take care of everybody else and I’m the last person to get anything. BAND-AID is synonymous with care, caring for yourself, caring for other people. One of my earliest memories of BAND-AIDs is a picture with me and my brother. We were probably like five years old and we were crying with Spiderman and we were covered in BAND-AIDs and I was like, “Mom what’s going on in this picture?” And my mom said — I’m from Alabama and we were living on St. Stevens rode at the time — my grandmother, Ma’dear, thought that we had been bitten by rats because the place was rat infested and we had all of these bites on us so my mom treated the bites and put BAND-AIDS on us. It was horrifying, I was like, “Are you serious?”
I’m fine now, and like soon after that my mom found an apartment for us that wasn’t rat-infested. But she was a single mother and it just makes me think about how I don’t fully realize how hard it was for her. Like how difficult it was to raise these two children by herself, put herself through college, with community help, but at the end of the day it was on her and it was insanely overwhelming. But it’s also really beautiful that like — I asked my mom are you okay with me telling that story because it’s sort of horrific — I don’t think I realized that we were that poor. It’s like, okay we were really poor. But the resilient piece of the story — Brene Brown says when you deny your story the story owns you, but when you claim your story you can write a brave new ending and the brave new ending is that my mom got us out of that situation. She cared for us and she put herself through grad school, she’s self-sufficient, she had retirement and healthcare where she can take care of herself and had two successful kids which just sort of speaks to all of the struggle.
BV: When did HIV/AIDs become real for you or has it always been a part of your life?
LC: HIV/AIDS has been real for me sort of my entire sexual life. The first I heard about the HIV/AIDS epidemic was probably right when it started in the early 80s and I heard it was this gay man’s disease and I was assigned male at birth and I was attracted to men, so my whole life. For many years, I had so much shame around being sexual because I had so much shame around my attraction and then I associated it with HIV/AIDS so I thought — even though I used a condom — that if I had sex I was going to get AIDS and die. Even though I knew better, it was the shame part and the stigma part and that persists.
That has been a process for me, that’s been a therapeutic process of breaking down what my relationship to sex and sexuality is. There’s so much shame we have in the United States around being sexual so it’s doing the work to break that down and get clear about I can protect myself when I have sex and have safer sex and it doesn’t need to be a death sentence. But I have to let go of the stigma and the shame around being sexual. Sexuality is a part of being human, but HIV/AIDS has been a part of my life my whole life.
BV: Patricia Arquette spoke out about her sister, Alexis, and the entire trans community during her speech at the Emmys, which left you emotional. What were you feeling in that moment?
LC: I knew Alexis, not well, but I knew her. Back in the day we were grand marshals at the Pride parade in Boston in 2010 and we used to hang out in New York back in the 90s. I knew Alexis, I loved Alexis, and Alexis had HIV and AIDS and that’s why she passed away. And I just, I just wasn’t expecting to hear her name. I’ve become friends with Rosanna [her sister] as well and they’ve been doing a lot to remember her name and give back and be of service for Alexis. To have Patricia say that from the Emmy stage, you know, “give us jobs,” “support the dignity of trans people,” it’s just really special and amazing. It was three years ago that Alexis passed away from AIDS. People are still dying from this and people don’t need to die anymore. We can do something and people like Alexis are the reason I’m doing this with Red.