BDO: What are some of the challenges in this work?
Ralph: Some of the challenges – they’ve been very different but sometimes the same. I spoke with a senator yesterday from Illinois and she looked at me and she said, “You need help.” And I said, “Yes! We need help. Still.” And she was talking to me about a bill she’s about to introduce in Illinois that will actually help grassroots organizations. Because very often, larger organizations you have to have so many people, you have to have this, you have to have that, and for smaller organizations – people who are working with less than $300,000 – you need a different kind of help. It’s like, you’ve got to change the way you do business because it’s not big business. It’s grassroots people who are reaching the people who need to hear the word; who need to get the message and that’s a different way of operating…
It’s also been a challenge at times being a woman. People sometimes look at you as a woman and they immediately think about what they think about how women do business. Then you’re a Black women on top it. Then they think another way about how they think about Black women doing business. And then you’re talking about HIV and AIDS and so many people will tell you, “It’s just not sexy anymore” and I’m so sick and tired of hearing people say it’s just not sexy anymore. I’m so sick of hearing that phrase. So,the challenges have been very interesting. I remember in the early days of this fight, raising my voice, I remember a church sending me a letter telling me that God would not find favor in me for working with those people. I’ll just never forget that as long as I live. And how could church people sit down and put those words together and send them to me. You start to see people and how they really think and feel. It can be daunting but I look at it this way: When I said that if sex could be a problem for men, women cannot be far behind. They said that I was stupid; that I was ridiculous. That I was an alarmist. We all know that I was just correct in what I thought would be the natural trajectory for the disease.
BDO: Having couples get tested together is something both you and your husband champion. Why is it important for couples to do this together?
Ralph: You know, because I think that that just says a wonderful thing about each other and your relationship. Why wouldn’t you want to be tested together? You go to the doggone hospital and test for everything together. I say you make a day of it. Show each other how much you love each other. People say, “Well what if you come up positive?” What IF you come up positive! It’s not like you didn’t have sex with anybody before you got married. Different diseases behave differently. Sometimes they might lay dormant. You get tested and you KNOW. What better way to show your love. That’s why we created TestTogether.org. As simple as put your picture up on the website, tell people your story about getting tested together. Encourage people. And it doesn’t have to be just a husband and wife. It can be a mother. Show your daughter how to be sexually responsible TO HERSELF. Fathers, show your sons how to be sexually responsible to themselves and everybody else. It’s about taking responsibility for your own health because your health matters.
BDO: With all of the travel, the challenges of stigma and the statistics that can be disheartening, how do you keep your spirit replenished?
Ralph: You know what? I’m always revived and refreshed by the moment when I realize oh my God, somebody’s actually listening. You follow my Instagram, look on my Instagram and you’ll see there was a message from a young girl who was obviously a high schooler and she Instagrammed from her classroom and she said “Oh wow, I see what Miss Sheryl was talking about. We learned about AIDS today.” And she had shot from her phone her classroom and you could see that they were just running this movie; kids were talking over the presentation and the boy in front was actually asleep. But I said to myself this girl is listening. She’s following. She’s listening and she actually put it together on that day. I felt so good!….
I’ve also had people tell me, “Why you do this work? You’re not Sharon Stone. She doesn’t have to do anything. All she has to do is be Sharon Stone and say AIDS and they help her.” And I’m like, “Well goddamn.” Okay? [I’m] Doing the work and moving forward, because I’m working for who needs to hear the message and still at this point hasn’t gotten it.
The DIVA Foundation kicks off its 25th anniversary year in August with an event in Philadelphia. For more details, visit www.theDivaFoundation.org.
Sheryl Lee Ralph: Center Stage In The HIV/AIDS Fight was originally published on blackdoctor.org