“When you see something that is unjust, bigoted, prejudiced, divisive, patronizing, condescending, you speak out about it,” says actor and activist Judith Light. And when Light began to witness “the runaway train” that was the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s and the homophobia simmering beneath the government’s apathy, she spoke up—and has never stopped.
Light always hoped that she would achieve a level of fame that would allow her a platform for greater good. Her parents raised her with a sense of duty to others—“there’s that word in [Hebrew] tzedakah, which means service,” she says.
Thirty years after One Life to Live and Who’s the Boss? and The Ryan White Story, nine years after her return to Broadway, and fresh off Transparent, the actor is, unequivocally, an ally for life. This year, the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League recognized her with the Isabelle Stevenson Tony Honor for her commitment and service to the LGBTQ+ community and to those affected by HIV and AIDS. Though she has won two Tony Awards for her acting, she says she “can’t think of anything more glorious to be recognized by my artistic family with an award that speaks to service.”
Light is the emblem of reverence for the cause when she leads the moment of silence at Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS’ Red Bucket Follies each year. “It’s one of the singularly most important things that I ever do—and that [BC/EFA Executive Director] Tom Viola asks me to do it every year is a real honor,” she says through tears.
“It’s the having lived through it,” she continues. “Nobody was a victim. They didn’t say, ‘The government isn’t giving us anything.’ They were like, ‘We will do our own. We will feed our own. We will take care of our own.’” Every time she speaks out, she brings her memories—of tragedy and pride—and they commandeer the whole of her feeling.
“It is my honor to remember with everyone and to hold the space,” she says. “It is a very sacred moment for me.”
But Light offers more than a moment. She marched on Washington, she rode her bike from San Francisco to Los Angeles for the 1995 California AIDS Ride (“the hardest thing I’ve ever done”). “When something is essential, you find the time,” she says simply. “You can’t just talk about this stuff. If you don’t put it into action, it doesn’t really count for much.”
Her energy for activism never wanes because the community itself fuels her. “The community was always my inspiration,” she says. “You watch people who are dying, whose parents have disowned them, and you watch them own themselves. You watch Larry Kramer put together the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. You watch Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and you see what these people do. … There is a quality of substance and authenticity.
“They are our leaders,” she says. “They are teaching us how to be.”
And Light is teaching us how to serve.