Aboard the Queen Mary 2, activist Judith Light rocks the boat with A&U’s Dann Dulin, talking about the gay community’s core strength in the fight against AIDS, her Rx for loss, and why she’s proud to be part of the family
There’s Judith Light!” I whisper to my friend in the gift shop on the first day of our transatlantic crossing aboard the opulent Queen Mary 2. So massive, the ship is literally a floating city. Thumbing through the rack of souvenir shirts, we overhear Judith say to her actor-husband, Robert Desiderio, “I think I’ll get this for….” Like us, they’re buying gifts for friends back home.
I contacted her office prior to departure and Light agreed to be interviewed during the six day sojourn, though the time and date had not been set. I thought it best to wait a day or so into the cruise before reconnecting with her. But, what the hey. I approach her, introduce myself and say something clumsy like, “Well, I guess it’s fate we meet now.” She’s warm and friendly and we arrange to meet in a couple of days.
Although this is the maiden voyage of an all-gay cruise, Judith fits in swimmingly. She’s just one of the boys—or girls. RSVP Vacations sponsored the Queen cruise, which was royally decked out with entertainment, lectures, films, panel discussions, classes, dance parties, themed events, karaoke, and even official commitment ceremonies. The granddaddy of them all, RSVP Vacations was established in 1985, and is the first all gay and lesbian travel company. Over the years, they’ve consistently been generous to the AIDS community. “We provide group rates to charity organizations and, additionally, donate a percentage of the cabin revenues back to the charities,” explains Rob Pritchard, RSVP Vacations director of operations. “And we always invite suggestions about ways we can assist various community-based organizations.”
Like RSVP Vacations, Judith Light has been involved with the HIV/AIDS community—extensively—in addition to being a longtime rebel for gay rights. In fact, when Judith’s longtime über-manager, confidant, and activist, as well, Herb Hamsher, e-mailed her bio to me, it contained a ten-page list of all her humanitarian work!
Over the past couple of decades, Light has not only participated in AIDS events, but has served on numerous committees and boards, too. She has marched in Washington, D.C., brush-stroked to create artwork, and even trekked one hundred miles in South Africa—all to raise AIDS awareness. Currently, she sits on the boards of the National AIDS Grove Monument Committee, Foothill AIDS Project, Project Angel Food, and the Ryan White Foundation. Light’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. She received the Human Rights Campaign’s Equality Award, the Centers for Disease Control’s National Leadership Award, and late last year, she was presented with the Red Ribbon of Hope Award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences [A&U, June 2007], which will be broadcast on here! television this month.
When we finally sit down to chat at the Queen’s Grill on Deck Nine, my first question is about the motivation behind all her charitable work. “Quite frankly, I don’t know,” says the Ugly Betty star and two-time Best Actress Daytime Emmy award-winner, as she sits in an armchair near a porthole with Hamsher at her side. There’s an obvious camaraderie and affection between them. We are cozily huddled in the corner, and between us stands a vivid purple orchid in a slender glass vase that rests on a small circular wooden table. “What I can tell you is that I have a very strong response to injustice. And when it is injustice against friends and people that I consider my family, I am outraged. What has prompted me to respond the way that I have to the GLBT community is that from the time I began my career in the theater, the people who nurtured me, supported me, and protected me—who felt like home and family—were the gay community.”
And Herb is an important part of that family. Early in her career, even before she played Tony Danza’s boss on Who’s the Boss?, Hamsher became Judith’s mentor. Both Herb and his partner, Jonathan Stoller, who also pitches in on managing the careers of Judith and Robert, have become a tightly knit family. Judith and her husband met on the One Life to Live set and have been married for twenty-two years. “I’ve never, ever experienced a person like Herb who walks the walk, not just talks the talk. Everyday he lives in the context of consciousness,” she says tenderly. “Jonathan and Herb have the best relationship that I have ever seen. Robert and I work to model our relationship after theirs.” The four of them certainly are a team and they even formed a company, Tetrahedron Productions. Observing them on several occasions during the cruise, I sense their vibrant spiritual connectedness.
“When I see that Robert and I have the kinds of rights that we can have, while gay people don’t—whether they choose to have it or not is not the issue—I see the utter hypocrisy. It outrages me. I feel that I have to stand up and say something,” asserts Judith, folding her hands on her lap as if to tame her anger. “It was during the height of the AIDS pandemic when it really hit me hard. The government turned its back, so I felt compelled to say this wasn’t just a disease that was happening only to my family. Everybody pretended like America was this perfect, compassionate country and I said, ‘But you’re not! This is hypocrisy.’ Two American Presidents wouldn’t even say the word ‘AIDS.’”
She looks at me wide-eyed, then briefly gazes out the porthole onto the deck and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. She returns to the room. “We go through life living in denial and inured to these things. It’s like, ‘Don’t you understand? People are dying around you!’ And I just…,” she stutters, ponders, then proceeds. “It’s as much for myself as it is for the community. It’s not altruistic, though I know how one could see it that way,” she chuckles a little, “but that’s not the way that I hold it. I can tell you that operating this way has changed my life. And I get so much more from this community than I give. They have supported me in ways that are beyond anything. You mentioned about those pages of work that I’ve done. I’ve gotten back way more.”
Light has a content, peaceful look on her face, which enhances her comfy Nehru meets yoga attire. She’s snug in an off-white, satiny pants suit with a fitted long-sleeve flowing cape. With lightly painted pink manicured nails and come-hither look, she’s soft-spoken, gentle, and almost appears meek. At times I see a schoolmarm before me, albeit a striking and attractive schoolmarm. But don’t let the demeanor and clothes fool you. An inner fire crackles with fervent intensity.
In the late seventies, Judith first heard about AIDS while she was at the O’Neill Theater Center one summer. It seems she was tuned in long before it broke in the news. Light read about one of her fellow actors who had died from a mysterious illness at the age of only twenty-six. “I didn’t understand what was going on,” she yells, emitting a puzzled glare. “That was the first time it clicked in. Then David Goodstein [former publisher of The Advocate] began talking about it.” Over the next several years, she walked many friends to their death. Even in the mid-nineties she was still experiencing loss when her dear friend, author Paul Monette, died of AIDS. “We went through the dying process with him and his lover, Winston Wilde. It was such a very powerful time,” reminisces Judith. She read the eulogy that Paul had written himself, and four months later, inspired with grief, she was riding in the annual AIDS ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. “It was so hard. Believe me, it was not my vein of gold!” she laughs, adding that she and others carried pictures of Monette.
How did Light deal with loss? “We always made sure that we are as complete with each person as we can possibly be. That means saying everything that needs to be said, making sure they knew how much we loved them, and allowing them to have their process and knowing that this is their journey,” she explains, using “we” to mean her family unit of four. “It’s important to go through the grief afterwards. By burying them, giving the eulogy, and going to those memorial services helps a tremendous amount. Because you really do get to be with community…,” she halts, switches gears, then speaks slowly and distinctly pronouncing each word passionately, “and the thrill of watching the GLBT community become the community that it has become out of the pandemic has really helped me a lot.”
Judith takes an earnest pause. “Out of this tremendous depth of sorrow, the incredible loss and the vitriol from around the world toward this community, and then watching them rise to another level. Instead of saying ‘We’re victims,’ they said, ‘You know what? Get out of the way. We are going to make ourselves into something.’ And they did. Like David Mixner [screenwriter, author, and political strategist (A&U, July 2002)] said yesterday in the panel Herb was a part of, ‘We fed and clothed and bathed and changed tubes and went to the hospitals. When people’s families weren’t there we were there. We were active.’ To watch this community become this model for the world,” she snaps breathlessly, “this inspired me and I wanted to be a part of it. This was the New World in the process of being created out of this devastation. This is the phoenix that is rising out of the ashes of this sorrow,” Judith forcefully declares. “That’s what has held me in enormous debt.”
At the core of the gay community, she says, is an arduously acquired self-esteem. “People don’t always understand what it means to come out!” she says aggressively. “And it isn’t just saying, ‘I’m gay.’ ‘I’m a lesbian.’ ‘I’m a friend of gays and lesbians.’ It’s an existential moment in time when all the pressures of the world are impinging on you: your family, your religion, your society, your culture. And everybody tells you to keep your true self quiet. And in that moment you say, ‘No! This is my truth. No matter what I lose, this is who I am.’”
Her passion for equality and justice compelled Judith to accept her latest role in Save Me, which was coproduced by her production company and the screenplay was cowritten by her husband. It also stars her friends, Chad Allen [A&U, June 2006] and Robert Gant from Queer As Folk fame. Like many of her projects, this was a team effort. The film is about reparative therapy and Judith plays a religious zealot, Gayle, with layered complexity. Save Me has its international premiere on-board, having only been shown once before at Sundance. It’s due to be released in the fall.
In 1988, Light starred in another film about injustice, The Ryan White Story, based on the life of a thirteen-year-old HIV-positive hemophiliac living in Indiana. One day on the set, Ryan was being interviewed and a journalist asked him, “What was it like for you?” He replied, “Well, you know, it’s hard. People were mean, they spit at me and called me a ‘fag.’” Judith was listening nearby and she instantly had an emotive surge that seared through her. “It’s like wait a minute!” her voice breaks, eyes moisten, and she continues in a hurt whisper. “This is Ryan and look what they are doing to him—and to our friends. We were losing people in troves. I had to do something! You know, if this had been a good old white boys’ disease happening in the Beltway, this would’ve been handled in five minutes. There would have been this groundswell! But because of the level of homophobia….,” she trails off, “I had to address it.”
Indeed, just as Ryan’s mother, Jeanne White, had to confront the bigotry directed toward her son. “Jeanne is one of the most extraordinary, complex women I’ve ever met. Here’s this lovely Midwestern woman and this tragedy happens to her. Like the gay community, she doesn’t sit around feeling sorry for herself.” Light is now revved. “They’re not going to let her son go to school? That’s not gonna happen! She doesn’t know what medicines to give her son? She finds the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and talks to them about Ryan’s numbers and his meds.” Judith’s enthusiasm is matched by her expressive hand gestures. “This situation was thrust upon this woman. She became proactive. She wasn’t brought up this way. It wasn’t easy for her. Jeanne White is a model of transformation, and I learned a lot from her.”
Recently, Light appeared in a PSA for NoHIVNoAIDS (www.nohivnoaids.com). She feels that AIDS has momentarily taken a back seat in the media, but, with the collective force of the gay community, it will attract the public’s attention again. “It’s paradoxical. Two things have to happen at the same time,” Judith explains with calm gusto. “One is that the community has to own the self-esteem and start putting it out there, which will draw people in. To stop asking for a place at the table. To say we are the place at the table. And the second is to start pulling together groups of real GLBT leaders from around the world. Talk about how the community can be making itself more powerful, more knowledgeable of their own self-esteem, and start casting it out into the world, like Mel White’s Soulforce and Michael Cashman and Sir Ian McKellen’s [A&U, October 1998] Stonewall Group UK.”
Light has heaps of confidence in the younger generation to effectively confront the AIDS epidemic. She’s on the board of trustees of the Point Foundation, which provides financial assistance and mentoring programs to the GLBT community who are jeopardized by their sexual or gender orientation. “We give them scholarships but we also require a level of leadership from them so they can give back in some way. I really believe they will make a difference,” she says with assurance. She crosses her lean legs, rests her forearms on her thighs, which brings us face to face. “But I was stunned,” she exclaims, recalling her discovery at last summer’s leadership conference that many of the scholars weren’t aware of their own gay history. “They didn’t know where they came from and so it’s incumbent upon the elders to start educating and working with them.” She sums up by saying that the community needs to continue to be proactive both externally (educational seminars) and internally (ownership of self-esteem).
Ding. Ding. Ding, sound the chimes over the speaker system. It’s the Captain with the daily update of the QM2’s position and the weather. This means it’s noon and Judith needs to attend a luncheon elsewhere on the ship. After an intimate farewell, I return to my cabin. The steward has cleaned up and the closed-circuit television is airing the GLAAD Media awards that were presented at Los Angeles’s Kodak Theatre in April. I watch a few moments and, lo and behold, Judith Light appears! She’s being interviewed on the red carpet. “We are still not where we need to be because people are prejudiced and bigoted against any community anywhere. And as long as one person isn’t free, we’re all not free.” Thankfully, more Light has been cast.
Buoy up to Judith at www.judithlight.com, and hop aboard at www.rsvpvacations.com. Generous gratitude to Kevin Nyland of RSVP Vacations and to Greg Lindberg for appearing just in the nick of time!
Cover photo by Greg Lindberg
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U.