Taraji P. Henson considers herself an ally in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
The 47-year-old actress was among those honored for her work in battling the health epidemic during the Black AIDS Institute’s Heroes in the Struggle Awards gala in Los Angeles on Saturday (Sept. 16) alongside Alfre Woodard, Laverne Cox, Vanessa Williams, Gina Belafonte, daughter of Harry Belafonte, and AIDS activist Gina Brown, who was infected with HIV more than 20 years ago.
As a native of Washington D.C., a city with the highest HIV infection rate in the nation, Henson is determined to use her platform to raise awareness.
“When you lose people that you love to something that’s preventable, or that can be cured, why wouldn’t you want to be apart of it? Why wouldn’t you want to help save lives?” the Empire star told ET on the red carpet.
But when it comes to a virus that has infected more than 35 million worldwide, education is a key factor in ending the epidemic.
“The more we talk about it, the more awareness will be raised,” Henson explained. “We have to keep talking about it because when you don’t talk about it, shame comes in, and people who have shame make decisions out of fear and those usually aren’t healthy decisions.”
“It’s always going to be a war,” she added. “It’s spiritual warfare, that’s life, but we’re going to find a cure.”
The night was a family affair for Henson, as she was presented her award by her TV husband, Terrence Howard, and director John Singleton. Howard and Singleton praised Henson’s tenacity and fearlessness in both acting and activism, as did her other Empire co-star, Jussie Smollett.
“I’m so proud of him,” she gushed over Smollett. “I’m proud of the artist he’s becoming but more importantly the philanthropic work that he’s doing because you can make money and just turn your back and live good. But my father always told me: if you are blessed, it is your duty to go out to the world and be a blessing. Some people do it and some don’t. I’m one that does and I’m so glad that Jussie does too, I’m in good company.”
Smollet, who co-chaired the event and photographed this year’s “heroes” described the challenge as a “huge undertaking,” but well worth the hard work.
“It’s something I’m forever grateful to take a part in,” the 34-year-old actor shared before explaining that his goal is to use his star power to reenergize the “conversation” around HIV/AIDS. “I feel like my hands are deep in hollywood and entertainment, young hollywood, and black hollywood for that matter. There’s so many things for us to care about, so many things affecting our sisters and brothers and I keep saying we have to multi-task because nothing is more important than our lives. Everything that affects, and could possibly take away, our lives, we need to be tackling as well. From police brutality to HIV and AIDS.”
The awards ceremony was centered around “black men honoring black women,” an idea for which Smollett proudly took credit.
“I just feel like regardless of who you fall in love with, race or gender, if you cannot appreciate or respect and honor all that a black woman is you need to seriously rethink your entire existence in life,” he said. “I’ve always been a black man who wants to honor black women. I come from a black women, my sisters are black women, there is nothing that I’d rather do than sit in front of my mother [who is here] tonight and show her that I’m honoring black women.”
Though black women are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS, black trans women have been virtually ignored, noted Laverne Cox.
“We’re left out of almost every discussion,” Cox said. “The CDC [Center for Disease Control] still counts transgender women as men who have sex with men. So when we look at statistics of women who catch HIV, we [trans women] are not counted in our national census data. We are just continually erased and when we don’t have data collection, and people to do the research, dollars don’t get to the community.”
Cox also pointed out that many trans women don’t “feel safe” going to healthcare providers for fear of discrimination.
“We have to do better at making trans people feel included and feel safe so we can seek out treatment, so we can get the information we need to protect ourselves,” she said adding that black trans women deserve a “seat at the table” in discussing HIV/AIDS, “So we’re not just talked about but we are actually included in the conversation to address these issues.”
Woodard, who was presented with the trailblazer honor from Luke Cage star Mike Colter, and Oscar winner Mahershala Ali, recognizing her decades of commitment to tackling the AIDS epidemic, shared advice for a new generation facing the harsh reality of the disease, more than three decades after it was first discovered.
“Each generation has to find out something for themselves, unfortunately. This is one where they don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” the 64-year-old actress shared with ET. “Ya’ll have to believe us when we say this is the way we protect yourself as we continue to do research to find a cure for [AIDS]. Like when we told you don’t put your fingers in the light socket, trust us on this.”
For Riverdale actress Vanessa Morgan, the issues hits home.
“Two of my aunts have passed away from AIDS and two my of my uncles -- they were obviously married --are living with it,” the Canadian actress revealed of her family members in Africa whom she tries to help out "as much as we can."
“I know about the experience first hand and how tough it can be. It’s hard, obviously you hope they [my family members] can live as long as possible, that they’re getting their meds that they need."