amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

Breaking Down the Barriers

An interview with actor and AIDS advocate Jay Ellis

Published Monday February 3, 2016

Jay Ellis is looking to leverage his celebrity to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS among African Americans. The need is great; year after year, African Americans bear a disproportionate burden of the epidemic in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the diagnosis rate in 2011 for HIV cases among blacks was nearly four times the rate for the general population. African American men accounted for 42 percent of HIV cases diagnosed among men in 2011. And of 197,090 HIV diagnoses from 2008 to 2011, blacks accounted for 47 percent of the total, despite comprising only 13 percent of the population.

An ambassador for amfAR’s generationCURE group of young HIV/AIDS advocates, Ellis was also recently named an ambassador for National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. Here the 34-year-old actor discusses his personal interest in the issue and the importance of HIV/AIDS education.

Jay Ellis on LifeRide
Jay Ellis participates in the 2015 Kiehl’s LifeRide, a yearly multicity motorcycle ride to raise AIDS awareness and funds for amfAR. (Photo: Travis Shinn)

Q. You are obviously incredibly passionate about HIV/AIDS. I know it has impacted your family.

A. Yes, I had a great uncle who passed away in the 90s. I must have been around 10 years old when he passed. AIDS had been around for almost a decade, but it wasn’t talked about, so no one in our family really knew what it was. We just knew that he was sick, that his T-cell count was low, and he didn’t have much time.

Q. National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day was first observed in 1999, and yet racial disparities in HIV infection rates persist. What needs to happen to close the gap?

A. I think that the only way to close the gap is to really talk about it. We often hear about HIV/AIDS from someone who doesn’t necessarily look like us. I think there needs to be better prevention programs, more resources need to be put into communities at risk. I have a cousin who is in high school, one in middle school and one in college, and the level of education, the level of awareness they’re getting about HIV and AIDS is almost nonexistent. 

Jay Ellis at Inspiration LA in 2015Jay Ellis at Inspiration LA in 2015 (Photo: Kevin Tachman)Q. You were recently appointed an ambassador for National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. What does that position entail?

The purpose of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is to encourage African Americans to get educated about HIV, to get tested, to get involved in helping to advocate for resources necessary to fight the disease. There is a stigma that getting tested means that you have HIV or that you are gay. So it’s trying to break down those barriers. I definitely don’t want to see this community suffer purely out of stigma, lack of trust or awareness, so part of my job is to get out there and yell from the mountaintop.

Q. How do we keep HIV/AIDS at the forefront when there are so many other issues— gun violence, drug use, other diseases and conditions—competing for people’s attention?

A. First of all, we have to be consistently vocal to increase the visibility of the HIV/AIDS crisis among the black community. When you look at Black Lives Matter as an umbrella and the things that fall under it: education, police brutality, the judicial system, employment opportunities. We have to think about not only how to treat all these things but also how all these things affect each other. Not one is more important than the other. They are all issues that we face every single day. 

Q. You’ve participated in the Kiehl’s LifeRide—a grueling multi-city motorcycle ride that takes place each year to raise AIDS awareness and funds for amfAR. How has that experience affected you? Will you be riding this year?

A. It’s an amazing ride. Chris Salgardo, who is the head of Kiehl’s, told me that it’s really about making noise, and that’s the purpose of riding these motorcycles into town – because the engines are so loud, 20 of us come rumbling into a city, literally the entire city looks up and sees this biker gang roll through and the juxtaposition of that is the gang is there to actually spread the word about AIDS and HIV. If I can do it this year, I am totally there.

For more information on National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, go to http://nationalblackaidsday.org/