When the AIDS pandemic hit this country like a hurricane tearing through thousands of people’s lives, the general public responded with an astonishing silence. I was stunned by the vicious and disdainful lack of any empathetic or even remotely supportive response from organized religion, our government and many individuals in our country. The attitude of “it’s only happening to them” (i.e., gay people) was devastating to me. It also embarrassed me to be a part of a country that acted this way while portraying itself, and actually believing itself, to be compassionate and caring.
It was the response of the gay community, however, that moved and inspired me. Gay men and lesbian women came together as a family in a way that had not happened before. Without indulging in the very understandable rage and despair I felt in my bones, they came together to form love- and care-driven support systems. I was one of a group of straight people who felt that AIDS was not “their” problem but “our” problem—and so I joined part of what came to be known as the “AIDS community.”
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I could not help but be inspired by the courage and tenacity and love that everyone in this community had for each other. It truly seemed that our hearts were so big and so full that the daily devastation, pain and yes, dying, could indeed be brought to an end. Despite our despair, we felt that we would someday stem the tide by coming together.
Inevitably, the fight to care for those in need put a glaring spotlight on how horrible we are in this country at ensuring equality for all Americans. The AIDS crisis left countless Americans suffering in closeted silence. And when they were courageous enough to own their truth, they were punished and discriminated against simply for being themselves.
From that time on, it has been deeply important to me to support and encourage members of the LGBTQ community who are modeling for others—often at unbelievable costs to themselves and their families—what authenticity actually looks like. I cherish this authenticity as much as anything in life.
These courageous people, young and old, are creating a system of self-worth that not only inspires me but serves as a model for how I want to live my life. And I am grateful for that modeling each and every day.
What I have discovered over the years is that I am automatically pulled to support and validate anyone, and particularly young people, who are in situations where they are likely to be marginalized or judged by others. Whether they are in racial or ethnic minorities or disadvantaged in some way, it is important to me to give them the experience of being seen, validated and encouraged.
I hope the next generation can learn from the example of this community I have been so fortunate to call friend.
Judith Light is a Tony- and Emmy award-winning actress currently starring in the television series Transparent.