Debra Messing's Next Role: HIV Warrior

By Neal Broverman

Originally published on Advocate.com July 27 2012 5:00 AM ET

Who knew that Debra Messing was a committed philanthropist? The TV star, who endeared herself to queer America with her portrayal of a gay lawyer's loyal best friend on Will & Grace and now stars in NBC's Broadway drama Smash, is an ambassador for PSI, a global health organization battling AIDS, malaria, and children's illnesses in Third World nations. But Messing doesn't just show up at the annual dinner and give a speech. She recently traveled to Zambia to witness HIV prevention efforts there, including circumcision procedures. We caught up with Messing just before she jetted off to Washington, D.C., to take part in the International AIDS Conference.
 

The Advocate: Can you tell us about the first person you knew who had HIV?
Debra Messing: Twenty years ago, my favorite acting teacher, for whom my son is named, died of AIDS complications. His death destroyed me. From that day on, I vowed I would do whatever I could to honor his life and protect others from HIV and AIDS.    

How did you get involved in PSI?
I became aware of PSI through colleagues. I really liked PSI’s approach and focus. Ninety-three cents of every dollar PSI raises goes directly to health programs in 67 countries around the world. Three years ago, I traveled to Zimbabwe with PSI and UNAIDS to learn more about the HIV pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa. I returned to neighboring Zambia this past May. Those trips opened my eyes to the degree in which HIV/AIDS has ravaged families and economies in Africa. But, most importantly, they opened my eyes to the tremendous progress that the U.S. and the global community have made to reduce HIV stigma and discrimination and expand life-saving prevention and treatment programs worldwide. This week, I am in Washington, D.C., for the International AIDS 2012 Conference to help keep that momentum going.   

Tell us about the conference — are you speaking? Do you plan to attend specific panels?
On Tuesday afternoon, I am co-hosting a discussion with USAID, UNAIDS, Alere (the world’s largest HIV testing technology manufacturer), and a community chief from Zambia.  We’re going to highlight the need for collaboration across different sectors to offer a complete, combined HIV prevention package. Because when we combine HIV interventions, such as male and female condoms, counseling and testing, reducing stigma and discrimination, male circumcision, among others—we are better positioned to counter the epidemic from every angle, not just one, and protect more lives. 

The following evening, I am co-hosting a reception with HRH Crown Princess Mette Marit of Norway at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, during which we will present the 2012 Impact Awards.  The awards, sponsored by PSI’s Impact Magazine, honor men and women from the fields of science, government, business, media, and individual endeavor who have made a lasting impact in global health and HIV/AIDS.

Tell us about witnessing a circumcision in Zambia.
Male circumcision can reduce HIV transmission from women to men by as much as 60%.   In both Zimbabwe and Zambia, I had the privilege of meeting men who chose to have the safe, voluntary procedure done.  I held their hands during the procedure and sang “You Are My Sunshine” — which turned out to be much more painful than the procedure itself! It took all of 10 minutes, and they each told me how proud and excited they were to have this done.  I was so impressed by their commitment to protecting their health and that of their loved ones.  Moreover, as an American, I was incredibly proud of our government’s efforts, along with the British government, UNICEF, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Global Fund, to take male circumcision programs to scale in Africa.

What were some things that surprised you on your trip to Africa.
I was shocked by the story of Irene, a woman I met in a community support center. A few years ago, Irene started to develop sores on her hands and over her body.  She didn’t understand why, and she was in such pain that it was difficult for her to simply move.  But the physical pain wasn’t the worst part. Irene was a greeter at her church, something she loved to do. But when she started getting visibly sick, people would not go near her. They told her flat out that she had AIDS, that she was going to die, and she began to believe them.  A friend insisted she get an HIV test, and as suspected, Irene tested positive.  When she shared the news with her son, instead of offering support he spat on her and told her she was as good as dead. 

As Irene recounted this story to me, I was surprised to see relief come across her face. The fact that she was able to share her story and that people in the group were listening and relating to her somehow lessened her pain. Clearly she needed to be heard, and like all of us, she needed compassion. She came to the HIV community support center to learn how to live again.  Today, with access to medication and support from volunteers and other members at the center, Irene is healthy – and thriving.   

This week at the AIDS Conference, Irene is front and center in my mind.  By working together to increase HIV prevention and treatment and reduce stigma and discrimination, the global community can ensure that Irene’s painful story never happens to anyone — ever again. 

Could Smash have a “Broadway Bares” episode?
Talk about a spike in the ratings!