By Drew Minard
The AIDS Epidemic was first reported on 40 years ago this year. In many ways, the camaraderie that has been felt so strongly within the Broadway community throughout COVID-19 parallels how it survived that devastating and transformative time four decades ago. The fear and confusion that many endured bears a resemblance to what we have been feeling every day. However, though misinformation is a constant threat to our wellbeing in 2021, it’s impossible to imagine how people affected by HIV felt with the violent ignorance and bigotry that they faced at the height of the AIDS Epidemic. The social stigma and governmental indifference of the time forced Queer and BIPOC communities to fight the battle on their own. Against these odds, headstrong pioneers have always emerged, willing to fight for the most vulnerable among us. Through trust and mutual support, the community is once again showing its strength and will continue to do so until reopening and beyond.
I sat down with Broadway actor and HIV activist Dimitri Moise to consider the path towards resilience and acceptance in the industry. We discussed equity within the Broadway community and how years of oppression and discrimination towards groups of artists have left justice out of reach for so many. To start, it’s important to address the common misconceptions about living with HIV. Dimitri notes, “HIV doesn’t discriminate. It’s everyone’s fight.” In fact, according to a recent study done by the CDC, of the 37,968 new HIV diagnoses in the US in 2018, 24% of them were among heterosexuals. Since the beginning, HIV has always affected varying groups of people and continues to do so today. Additionally, racial disparities continue to exist, with Black/African American people accounting for 42% of new HIV diagnoses in 2018, so even though HIV is no longer considered a death sentence, the epidemic is still raging on.
Moise believes that much of the work that needs to be done stems from the lack of HIV education. People know about the virus itself, but don’t understand how it’s evolved since the beginning. For example, we’re all familiar with the red buckets shining up on stage during Broadway Cares season, but what else can we do to encourage the audience to reach further than their wallets? “Maybe that’s leaving people with a one-sheet with ‘Facts You Should Know’ or giving the whole company some talking points,” Dimitri suggests. “Going past the red bucket, it’s about ‘what am I doing to educate myself’, especially when there are so many folks in the community living with HIV.” As opposed to othering the HIV community through sympathy, it’s about reaching out empathetically to help those who are struggling.
Broadway’s reopening can be the perfect opportunity to usher in the changes that Dimitri and many other artists wish to see, but it’s going to require structural change. Speaking on his experience in the play As Much As I Can, Moise notes that “We need people in positions of power to say ‘I’m going to put my money and my name behind this type of work.’ Broadway is such a gatekeeper community and it really is gonna rely a lot on the gatekeepers to make that decision on whether they want to support work like that or not.” It’s time to connect with the people who will grow with us as we progress in the industry to create the work that we’re passionate about. After all, Broadway is meant for innovators, not gatekeepers.
The New York theatre community and theatre communities around the world have always been persistent in their love for storytelling and inspiring change. Through an epidemic, a pandemic, and dozens of snowstorms in between, Broadway proves every time it’s resilience for what it loves and who it loves. There is no doubt in my mind that this industry will come back better and stronger than before and the work that’s being done by people like Dimitri Moise will be the foreground for what makes Broadway a more justified and flourishing place. As the novelist Reki Kawahara once said, “Why do we search for strength to stand alone when we can build strength by standing together?”
Drew Minard is a New York-based performer and activist. He has been working with Research Foundation to Cure AIDS for almost two years