September 5, 2017 at 11:53 am PDT | by Karen Ocamb
Black AIDS Institute honors Laverne Cox

‘Stigma and shame can kill us,’ said actress and trans advocate Laverne Cox. (Photo courtesy the Black AIDS Institute)

Notable black men take a night out on Sept. 16 to honor notable black women who have gone the extra mile in the long and heroic fight against HIV/AIDS in black America. These women take their place in the 16-year old Heroes in the Struggle Hall of Fame, an important photography exhibit that travels the world instigating awareness, discussion and debate about HIV/AIDS in black America. This year, transgender star Laverne Cox is among the six women being honored for their work and outreach.

The 16th Annual Heroes in the Struggle Awards Presentation & Reception is also honoring: Taraji P. Henson, Vanessa Williams, Alfre Woodard, Gina Belafonte, and Gina Brown. Out “Empire” star and Black AIDS Institute Board Member Jussie Smollett will serve as chair and host of the event, which will also honor Novant Health as the 2017 Corporate Hero. R&B singer/songwriter Ledisi will perform a special tribute.

“At the age of 15, I began working with the Black AIDS Institute and I am proud to be a member of the board of directors,” Smollett said in a press release. “Although it is not spoken about like it used to, the AIDS epidemic is not over, especially in black communities. I am humbled to pay tribute to these remarkable women in our community.”

The event not only celebrates the contributions of black women, but also lifts those who have been dramatically impacted.

“Black women are the single most important engine in the survival of Black people, including with HIV/AIDS,” says Phill Wilson, president and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute. “Fifty-nine percent of women living with HIV in the United States are black. Black women account for 60% of the new HIV infections among women, and are 16 times more likely to be diagnosed with HIV than white women. This event not only allows us to acknowledge the invaluable role black women have played in the AIDS fight, but it helps raise awareness about the devastating impact AIDS continues to have on black women and the opportunities we have to turn that around if black men and women work together.”

In another twist on this Year of the Woman, the Heroes in the Struggle gala comes less than a week after NMAC’s national US AIDS Conference  in Washington, D.C. which will close with a tribute to the Women’s March. The Heroes event will be held on Sept. 16 at the Darryl F. Zanuck Theater at 20th Century Fox Studios in Los Angeles at 6 p.m. For ticket and other information, go to or contact Wendell Miller at or 213-353-3610, ext. 105.

Laverne Cox was one of the standout keynote speakers at the US Conference on AIDS in 2014, one of many appearances and interviews she’s given regarding HIV/AIDS— transgender people are 49 times more at risk of living with HIV compared to the general population. The actress, producer and transgender advocate was poignant, funny and personal.

“We come from a history of resilience in the face of unspeakable horrors. We come from a history of lifting each other up when no one else will do it. That is what we’ve been doing in the LGBT community. That is what we’ve been doing in the AIDS community for over 30 years,” Cox said, before explaining the “state of emergency” in the trans women of color community with high rates of murder, unemployment and HIV/AIDS.

“But the numbers are inaccurate. Far too often, trans people don’t count. We are left out of HIV/AIDS studies. We are left out of the count,” she said. “They erase us.”

“HIV/AIDS has been a reality for me my entire adult life, my entire sexual life,” and growing up in conservative Mobile, Ala., she thought she was going to hell,” she said.

“My entire life, I really believed that because of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, that I was destined to die. There has always been this air of inevitability—that because of who I am, eventually, I will test positive for HIV/AIDS,” she said.

But despite the “tremendous amount of shame” she experienced, Cox said, she is “a person today who stands here HIV negative. And I feel weird even saying that because we live in a world that often assumes that because I am black and because I am trans, I must be HIV positive. That stigma has been so crippling to me as I go out into the world and look for love and affection.”

Shame and stigma kill, Cox said, telling the story of a trans friend who didn’t want anyone to know she had AIDS. “So she hid it and she didn’t go and seek medical attention. And she passed away because of stigma and because of shame. And when I think of that – I think there is so much more work that we have to do to begin to lift the stigma and shame around HIV and AIDS. Because stigma and shame can kill us.”

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