Sheryl Lee Ralph was honored on Saturday with the inaugural Sheryl Lee Ralph Legacy Award at the 2023 Project Angel Food Awards Gala, and in her acceptance speech the actor revealed she faced hostility due to her HIV/AIDS advocacy in the '80s and '90s.
But of course that didn't stop her.
Ralph became involved in Project Angel Food—a nonprofit that prepares and delivers healthy meals to LA residents affected by serious illness—in the '80s when she recognized the severity of HIV/AIDS crisis and how the impacted were not supported.
She has been involved with the organization ever since.
On Saturday— after being introduced by Lily Tomlin who read a signed letter from Vice President Kamala Harris—Ralph shared:
“Let me tell you about December 20, 1981. I made my Broadway debut in what has become the iconic musical of the '80s — because I say so — ‘Dream Girls.'"
“And out of all the wonderful things we did with ‘Dream Girls,’ nobody ever mentioned the fact that we lost 1/3 of our original company to AIDS.”
“They were good people. They were kind people. Creative people."
"You would sing and dance with them one night, then they would be fighting for their life, the next. And I said, ‘What am I watching here, God?’ and ‘Why am I having to see this in America?'”
Ralph continued, noting how so many were suffering while society turned its back.
“It was an ugly time in America when people took comfort in pointing at those who suffered and were dying, and saying that’s what they get, and that’s what they deserve."
"People took comfort in dumping their sick children off on church stair steps like they were bags of used clothing for a rummage sale."
The actor then discussed the horrific treatment of those affected.
"There were those who laughed as they suffered. There were gangs of men who would roam the ‘gayborhood’ and they would beat men to a bloody pulp. Just for being there."
"Lovely celebrities and people that we liked and laughed with on TV came out and said the most hateful, vile things you could ever hear being said about another human being."
"And when they were about to pass on and die, and they would be in the hospital, there was no bed for them."
"There were doctors and nurses who refused to give care, and some of them had signs on their bed that said 'do not touch', and I don’t know what in the world made me open up my mouth and say ‘Why are we not doing something?'"
She also revealed she was criticized for her advocacy and was told to "shut up" and that "you won’t have much of a career because nobody’s going to like you hanging with those people."
"Yeah, they were wrong."
A church even wrote her a letter shaming her for her actions.
"I’ll never forget a church took the time to write me a letter and tell me that God would find no favor in me because of talking about that AIDS thing."
"I stood on stage, I held my son — he was all of maybe two years old — and I said no matter what, God gave me a healthy child and I would love him gay or straight, and someone stood up and said, ‘What kind of hypocrite are you that would stand up and say out loud that you would love a gay son?'"
"But something in me said we have got to use our voices to speak up about this."
People on social media applauded Ralph for continuing to "right social injustice, fight ignorance and advocate for change.”
Many also congratulated the actor on her well-deserved award.
@thesherylralph @ProjAngelFood Congratulations!\ud83d\udc4f\ud83c\udffd\ud83d\udc4f\ud83c\udffd\ud83d\udc4f\ud83c\udffd\ud83d\udc4f\ud83c\udffd— shirley jordan (@shirley jordan) 1695567902
The event, which was held at Project Angel Food's headquarters in Hollywood, raised $725,000 by the end of the night.
Congratulations, Sheryl Lee Ralph, and thank you for your continued advocacy!