Janora McDuffie: Myth Buster
May 16 2012 12:00 AM ET
Janora McDuffie is an accomplished actress, most recently playing Janet, the social worker, on Grey's Anatomy. But she's more than a pretty face. McDuffie is the cohost of No More Down Low (NoMoreDownLow.TV), a Web series that chronicles the lives of LGBT people of color. The goal of the series is to put an end to homophobia in the black community by highlighting the lives of gay black Americans and the issues they face. The show turns on its head the 'down low' (a much-debated media concept about closeted men who have sex with men), while also focusing on ending stigma against people with HIV. Between taping episodes of her series and training for California's annual 545-mile AIDS/LifeCycle fund-raiser, the 34-year-old actress talks to us about her motivation to fight HIV.
How has training been for the AIDS/LifeCycle? Training so far has actually been enjoyable. It's consisted of two days during the week where I take a long bike ride in sunny SoCal with friends and have a great meal afterward. The challenging part comes during the actual ride, when I do 60-plus miles, all day, for seven consecutive days without a bed or warm bath in between! That's when it becomes daunting, and at that point it's more mental than physical to keep going.
What motivates your HIV activism? The statistics. If AIDS is one of the leading causes of death for African-American women under the age of 40, how can I not be involved? If African-American men make up 44% of new HIV cases yet are 14% of the nation's population, then I don't have a choice but to be part of the fight. I think of my brothers, my nieces, my neighbors, their kids, and I want a different world for them. But that's not going to happen with me sitting on my couch and complaining about how shocking and disturbing these numbers are.
What was your first experience with HIV? When I was in college at the University of North Carolina, an HIV-positive woman came to speak. I don't remember her name, I don't remember why I even attended this event. All I remember is that she was stunning and told a tragic story of contracting HIV from her late husband, who lost his battle to AIDS. It's ironic that her heartfelt story resonates stronger with me 15 years later. It's probably because for me, HIV is now something tangible, it's now something that has a face and has affected people I personally know and love.
What's been your favorite story at No More Down Low? I think our coverage of the recent independent film Pariah has been my favorite. The film is a beautifully told story that explores identity, family, acceptance, and love. Hopefully, with our No More Down Low perspective, we were able to dive deeper into those themes and spread the word of this film that transcends race and sexuality. A close second is the coverage of my very first AIDS/LifeCycle.
Some people think the term 'down low' is misleading and racially charged. How do you respond to that criticism? I hate the negative connotations associated with 'down low.' Yes, it's misleading and racially charged because everybody living in that closet is not just African-American. But I think it's allowed the black community to label a set of people to 'contain' the problem and nicely 'set it aside' so it becomes 'their' issues when the truth is these issues affect us all and we're also all part of the problem. I appreciate that we call our show NoMoreDownLow.TV, because we are trying to show that black men and women can lead happy, productive, and proud lives out of the closet.