Actor Sheryl Lee Ralph says she refused to turn her back on people with HIV/AIDS, even after she was warned that supporting the community would hurt her career.
Ralph looked back on her long history of HIV and AIDS advocacy while accepting the inaugural Sheryl Lee Ralph Legacy Award during Project Angel Food’s 2023 awards gala on Saturday.
During her speech, the “Abbott Elementary” star talked about her three decades working with Project Angel Food, a nonprofit that delivers food to Los Angeles residents with serious illnesses.
Ralph first got involved with the organization in the ’80s after witnessing how the HIV/AIDS crisis impacted the Broadway community and beyond.
“They were good people. They were kind people. Creative people,” she said, Variety reported. “You would sing and dance with them one night, then they would be fighting for their life, the next. And I said, ‘What am I watching here, God?’ and ‘Why am I having to see this in America?’”
Ralph called the ’80s and ’90s an “ugly time in America” when gay men were regularly abandoned by their families, attacked by strangers and maligned by public figures.
“People took comfort in pointing at those who suffered, and were dying, and saying that’s what they get, and that’s what they deserve,” she remembered, noting how even doctors and nurses discriminated against AIDS patients during their final days.
“I don’t know what in the world made me open up my mouth and say, ‘Why are we not doing something?’” the actor said.
Ralph said she also faced hostility for her HIV/AIDS advocacy, telling gala attendees that some people told her to “shut up” and warned that “you won’t have much of a career because nobody’s going to like you hanging with those people.” She recalled that one church even sent her a letter urging her to stop.
She refused to let the critics weaken her commitment to the cause, however.
While accepting her award, Ralph said she “never, ever dreamed that someone would be naming an award after me and then put the word ‘legacy’ behind it.”
Project Angel Food was founded in 1989 to help people impacted by the HIV/AIDS crisis.
The nonprofit has since expanded its mission and now delivers over a million medically tailored meals to people facing food, financial and health insecurity in Los Angeles County each year.