Actor Regina King’s first name in latin means queen and she certainly lives up to that moniker when it comes to educating others about HIV
by Dann Dulin
Taking an HIV test in public? Whaaat? Many people won’t take the test in a medical office let alone having their mouths swabbed in front of strangers! But in 2007 that’s just what Regina King did to urge others to get tested in the Test 1 Million campaign sponsored by the Black AIDS Institute.
“If I only get fifty people to pay attention it’s so worth it because the numbers are staggering for young black women and women of color,” King explains from an Italian restaurant in Los Feliz, a hilly upscale section of Los Angeles. When Black AIDS Institute founder Phill Wilson approached Regina to take part in the campaign, she needed a few moments to catch her breath. “‘Oh my god,’” I said to him, “‘Let me stew on that a little bit.’ But when he sent me those statistics [of the high rate of HIV infections], I knew I had to participate. How could I not?!” Her voice rises nearly to a whine, laden with surprise and sadness—“When I saw those stats I said to Phill, ‘You’re kidding me?! That’s where we are now?’” She pauses to let the reality sink in. “There’s so much we don’t know about this epidemic.”
But Regina is committed to spreading the word. She addresses young black women in high schools around the country. Knowing the grueling stats, she says, enables her to talk to women who are sexually active and to stress how important it is to know their status. She explains it to them in simple terms: “You are the only person who knows for sure whether you are HIV-positive or not. The person who never has sex or the person who tests regularly knows their status. It’s either you know or you don’t. It’s not, ‘Well I’m probably not HIV-positive because I’ve only been with one guy in my life.’ That’s how a lot of these young women think. The worst thing you can do for yourself is to ignore your status but in the community I think it’s like, ‘Well if I don’t know my status then I don’t have to deal with it.’”
King is poised at a sundrenched sidewalk café table sportingly attired in black. The sun shows off her youthful lean athletic build in a NIKEiD outfit. A proud fan, she also wears a Lakers cap. After our meeting she dons another hat as volunteer cheerleading coach for high schoolers. Regina comes across like a blend of Mother Earth and the girl next door. Though she’s a movie star—and she certainly looks like one—there’s no shade of arrogance, pretense, or deceit. She’s a right-on-straight-in-your-face affable kinda gal.
It’s midday and the restaurant has few patrons. We’re the only ones dining outside in close proximity to pedestrians and the whooshing traffic. As Regina discusses the many myths that circulate among teen girls, she dunks some crisp bread into a roasted tomato dip and comments on how delicious it is. (She should know, as several years ago she owned an Italian eatery not far from this one.) Regina says one myth some girls believe is that if you only have oral or anal sex and not vaginal sex then you can’t get HIV. “They assume that if there is no penetration into their vagina they can’t become infected,” she clarifies, gently blotting her mouth with a cloth napkin. “It’s amazing what we tell ourselves to justify our actions.”
Then there’s the cold sore myth. “A cold sore is herpes,” she explains, sprawling her hand out on the table to make the point. “Many people think that the person who has a cold sore is not ‘nasty’ but the person who has genital herpes is. Neither one of these people are nasty. I mean it’s the luck of the draw. The person who has genital herpes may have gotten it years ago and can’t even pinpoint where they picked it up. And the herpes on the mouth, I mean, who knows?”
A while back, King spoke at her alma mater, Westchester High School, in Los Angeles. “You need to know your body first,” she told them. “Some of you guys may be very religious and were taught that masturbation is a sin so I’m not addressing that. That’s between you and God and your parents and your beliefs. But what I believe is that if I don’t know how to please myself and I don’t know what feels good to me then how I am going to think that some little boy is capable of pleasing me. First of all, they don’t care about you and, secondly, you’re not caring about yourself if you don’t know what pleases you.”
Her directness is refreshing and this is the sort of advocate we need in the HIV community—no bullshit. Making it plain and simple for teens to understand.
“Reaching out to these women touches the young girl in me, for whatever reason, and it’s not conscious,” she points out. “I’m attracted to the state of young women….” Like the skilled versatile actor that she is—starting at age fourteen on the TV series 227, followed by such films as Boyz N the Hood, Jerry Maguire, Legally Blonde 2, Daddy Day Care, Ray, and How Stella Got Her Groove Back—Regina connects viscerally with these young women just as she does with the fictional characters she portrays.
The sun is now too strong for me and I request that we move inside. Happily she agrees. We both help move the table set up, waters, drinks, and even the tasty dip. Jazzy music plays softly in the room. Once we resettle, I ask Regina if she ever demonstrates how to use a condom. She briefly points at her temples with both fingers to call to mind. “We talk about them carrying condoms but we haven’t talked about this…I’m glad you mentioned it. That should be the next step. That’s a really good idea,” she notes, confessing, “Honestly, at seventeen, I didn’t know how to put a condom on.
“And like most people, I was uninformed at that time, too,” King divulges, pointing out that she came of age when the epidemic broke. “I thought it was just a gay disease and it had nothing to do with me. A lot of young girls still believe this.” She takes a sip of her Arnold Palmer drink through a straw then advises that if you see a friend who’s not acting responsibly, you need to confront them.
Her first memory of the epidemic is when disco singer Sylvester died, but what really stunned her was when her good buddy, Rodney, announced that he was HIV-positive. “That was the beginning of my [HIV/AIDS] education. I was nineteen.” Regina and Rodney are still friends, nearly twenty years later.
“When Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive,” she recalls, caressing her lower lip, “that really hit me, too! I was performing in a play in Baltimore and I came back to the hotel room from a performance and turned on my TV. He was having a press conference.” She stops. “I’m about to cry….It hit me because the only guy I’d ever been with in my life had been with women who had been with Magic. I sat down on the end of the bed thinking, ‘Oh…dear…God.’ Because by then we knew that when you slept with one man, you’re also sleeping with all his partners, too! And ya know what?, talking about being young, after hearing that, I still didn’t get tested!” King grabs her cap and tugs it down over her forehead.
The star of TV’s Southland definitely practices at home what she preaches in public. She makes sure that her son, fourteen-year-old Ian, is aware and informed. “We talk about everything,” she boasts. “I have to! Kids are like sponges. If a child asks you a question and you tell them not to worry about it now, they’re going to get the information somewhere else. The worst thing you want them to do is get the wrong information.”
King’s eagerness to teach others may be a family trait. Her mother was a special-education teacher and she firmly supports her daughter’s work. What disturbs Regina is the attitude of some boys’ mothers who are not concerned about their son having sex in contrast to the girls’ mothers who usually are concerned. “Do you want your son to be a teenage father?! Both kids were irresponsible together,” she asserts with fervor, referring to the stigma that’s attached to the girl more than to the boy.
“AH, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO!” Regina shouts. For a second I’m confused. What is she talking about? Then she rises and heads out to the front of the restaurant to her car where a cop is writing her a parking ticket for an expired meter. She pleads with him, but he continues to write the ticket. Regina returns to the table slightly disgusted at his apathetic attitude but she calmly states, “These are the moments when I say, ‘Ya know what? I have a car. I could be riding the bus.’”
King continues her thought. “We need to be more conscientious,” she insists. “We need to talk more about HIV/AIDS and make our kids feel more okay about knowing the facts. Kids from two all the way up to about eleven learn from their environment. We need to take more responsibility for what we created!” Regina breaks, and her piercing exotic hazel eyes open wide. “But we all wanna avoid stuff. I get it. We’re all stressed out! But, we must be responsible….”
Dann Dulin interviewed Ann-Margret for the September issue.